From classic works of the South African stage in the front line of the battle against apartheid, to rising stars of Australian and American comedy, the flagship Assembly venue in Edinburgh’s South Side unveiled its Fringe offerings yesterday.
Major seasons of South African and Russian theatre, under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, will take centre stage among 130 shows from 20 countries, with more than 640,000 tickets on sale for 14 performance spaces.
On the comedy front, established favourites including Adam Hills and the Pajama Men will appear alongside the American Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani and Australian comedienne Denise Scott, both in Edinburgh for the first time.
The Assembly, run by Fringe veteran William Burdett-Coutts, took its name from the Assembly Rooms in the New Town, where it was formerly based. That revamped venue is now run by Stand boss Tommy Sheppard, a long-time rival who unveiled his own expanded line-up earlier this month.
But after clashing on the use of the name, Mr Burdett-Coutts was well ahead in numbers yesterday, with double the tickets on offer.
Three other leading venues centred on the southern side of the Old Town – the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance, and the Underbelly – promise fierce competition for audiences.
“The drift to the Old Town has been huge,” Mr Burdett-Coutts said. “The amount of work available in the New Town is now quite limited, so inevitably the focal point of the whole festival is on the Old Town.
“The combined four venues’ programme is 650 shows.”
The South African season at the Assembly features eight productions, topped by Athol Fugard’s 1972 play, Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act. The story of a black teacher’s affair with a white librarian, it remains a “very powerful piece about how politics impinge on people’s personal lives”, said Mr Burdett-Coutts. It is a production of the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.
With the revival of Woza Albert!, a satire of Jesus Christ arriving in the apartheid era, it is part of a growing collaboration between Edinburgh and South Africa. A three-year programme will also bring over South African stage-hands and technicians.
The Assembly features a selection of the best shows from the Sydney fringe festival. “We’ve established a very strong relationship with Australia over the years,” said Mr Burdett-Coutts. “There are a fantastic group of South African theatre, but they don’t have that ongoing relationship, and we aim to establish it.”
The Russian season of work features seven productions and is centred on the new Roxy venue, in a collaboration with the award-winning Derevo company and including their production of Mephisto Waltz. It ranges from children’s shows to Medea Hardcore, rewriting the Greek tragedy of Medea’s revenge as a punk rock opera, from the Teatro di Capua company of St Petersburg.
Meanwhile, the Assembly line-up includes Re-Animator, the Musical, taken from the cult horror film and starring George Wendt, from Cheers, along with Flash Mob, featuring dancers from TV reality shows, and a production of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells for Two.