Edinburgh’s most surreal festival season was also its most inspiring – Brian Ferguson

It began in a deckchair, wrapped up in multiple layers, watching Jaws on a big screen against the backdrop of the Forth bridges.

Monday, 30th August 2021, 4:55 am
Sophie Douglas, Emmanuella Damptey and Caitlin Anderson played aliens from the planet Hanyana in the Fringe show WeCameToDance. Picture: Ian Georgeson

It ended in sweltering heat, on one of Charles Jencks’ landform sculptures at Jupiter Artland, watching festivalgoers swim in its pools below.

The bizarre book-ends, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, to the most surreal, yet inspiring, summer festival season I can recall were entirely in keeping with the rest of it.

There was certainly little that was normal.

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Nerea Bello, Julia Taudevin and Mairi Morrison performed in the Fringe show Move on Silverknowes beach.

Deliberately seeking out new pop-up venues, unusual locations and out-of-town shows took me to a football stadium, the middle of a business park, a rocky beach and the middle of a wood.

The ambitious line-ups of stand-alone events like Fringe by the Sea, in North Berwick, and Jupiter Rising, at Jupiter Artland, were rewarded with warm sunshine and buzzing crowds.

The most ingenious response to the Covid crisis was the open-air MultiStory below Edinburgh Castle, where the audience shed layers as they danced the night away on one of my visits.

In the traditional Fringe heartland, it was a more mixed picture. Late decisions on easing social distancing meant venues were only able to programme a fraction of their normal line-ups.

Yet the mood music is that it has been more enjoyable for artists and audiences who have been here.

With their venue capacities also severely restricted, both the film festival and the book festival were shadows of their former selves, but did more than enough to keep their loyal audiences happy.

The International Festival’s followers warmly embraced their outdoor venues, which ensured both spectacle and scale. The return of cultural cornerstones like the Traverse Theatre, The Stand and Summerhall was vital.

But for anyone tempted to think the past few weeks have been some kind of template for the future, it is worth remembering that many great venues did not reopen, including the Usher Hall, Assembly Rooms, Leith Theatre and Playhouse, while the Tattoo was conspicuous by absence, and the most depressing sight of the month was a locked-up Ross Bandstand.

Yet a season almost bereft of posters, flyers and packed pavements also felt much less of an imposition on the city than it did in 2019, leaving all those with a stake in its events much to think about.