Dou­ble Act ... Fringe com­edy prize split for first time ever

Sunday Herald - - NEWS IN BRIEF -

TWO sep­a­rate acts have been named joint win­ners of the Ed­in­burgh Com­edy Awards for the first time in the his­tory of the Fringe.

Aus­tralian co­me­dian Han­nah Gadsby’s show Nanette shares the Best Com­edy Award with Bri­tish stand-up John Robins’ The Dark­ness of Robins.

Robins’ show fo­cused on the end of his re­la­tion­ship with fel­low co­me­dian Sara Pascoe, while Gadsby said Nanette will be her last out­ing as a stand-up.

The win­ners saw off com­pe­ti­tion from seven other nom­i­nees in­clud­ing Ahir Shah, So­phie Wil­lan and Spencer Jones, and will be given £10,000 prize money each.

Awards di­rec­tor Nica Burns said the de­ci­sion to have two win­ners was “fit­ting that in the 70th an­niver­sary year of the Fringe some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary has hap­pened”.

Burns added: “Both shows, which could not be more dif­fer­ent, were hotly de­bated and fiercely fought for. Com­edy has many pos­si­bil­i­ties and au­di­ences (have) very dif­fer­ent funny bones. These two in­cred­i­bly tal­ented win­ners make you laugh and touch your heart. And yes, they will both re­ceive £10,000 each so it’s been an ex­pen­sive year; in the 37 years of the last­minute.com Ed­in­burgh Com­edy Awards this has never hap­pened be­fore and it is un­likely it will ever hap­pen again.”

LA-based Natalie Palamides won the Best New­comer Award and £5,000 for her show LAID. The judges de­cided not to award the an­nual Panel Prize.

As the cur­tain falls on the 70th Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, di­rec­tor Fer­gus Line­han ar­gues that the spirit of unity in which it was founded has never mat­tered more

WHEN I was first ap­pointed to the role of di­rec­tor of the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, one con­sid­er­a­tion on the dis­tant hori­zon was the 70th an­niver­sary fes­ti­val, which would fall in 2017. If I’m hon­est, an­niver­saries can be some­thing of a pest, im­por­tant per­haps to the or­gan­i­sa­tions in ques­tion, but largely ir­rel­e­vant to the pub­lic, who sim­ply want a good se­lec­tion of in­ter­est­ing and en­gag­ing per­for­mances. In ad­di­tion, the found­ing prin­ci­pals of the fes­ti­val – the strength­en­ing of the bonds be­tween na­tions – seemed wor­thy but some­what ar­chaic.

While other Euro­pean cities cel­e­brate spe­cific art forms (Cannes – film, Venice – vis­ual art, and Bayreuth – opera), Ed­in­burgh’s am­bi­tions have al­ways been wider and more philo­soph­i­cal. The ob­jec­tive of the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val – first held in Au­gust, 1947 – was not to sim­ply cel­e­brate the arts but to of­fer an al­ter­na­tive view to the divi­sion and ha­tred that had torn Europe apart dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. In re­cent years those ideas have gained cur­rency and the words of the Fes­ti­val’s founders have rung around foy­ers and au­di­to­ria as a counter to the in­creas­ingly alarm­ing daily news cy­cle.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that the Fes­ti­val’s first di­rec­tor, Ru­dolf Bing, was an Aus­trian Jew who had fled Berlin and made his home in Bri­tain. His de­ci­sion to in­vite artists and en­sem­bles from coun­tries all across Europe, Ger­many in­cluded, was an act of ex­tra­or­di­nary rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that set the tone for the 70 years that have fol­lowed.

In his ser­mon at the open­ing ser­vice in 1947, the min­is­ter of St Giles’ said: “This Fes­ti­val is a tes­ti­mony to the har­mony which is at the heart of cre­ation. It wit­nesses to the sur­vival power of beauty amid ug­li­ness, of har­mony amid dis­cord, or truth amid in­sin­cer­ity, fake and lies.”

The eco­nomic ben­e­fits that Scot­land en­joys from the Fes­ti­val sea­son are well doc­u­mented but, in his in­tro­duc­tion to the 1947 Fes­ti­val, Ed­in­burgh’s Lord Provost Sir John Fal­coner wrote: “May I as­sure you that this Fes­ti­val is not a com­mer­cial un­der­tak­ing in any way. It is an en­deav­our to pro­vide a stim­u­lus to the es­tab­lish­ing of a new way of life cen­tred round the arts.”

In 2017, dur­ing this, the 70th Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, those lofty am­bi­tions have felt more ur­gent than ever. As the Lyceum The­atre per­formed a new ver­sion of Eu­gene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, por­tray­ing a town whose pop­u­la­tion has be­come bru­talised by ex­trem­ism, the bru­tal­ity of Char­lottesville was un­fold­ing. As we cel­e­brated the courage of the Fes­ti­val founders, who in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the war in­vited the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic or­ches­tra to per­form dur­ing that first fes­ti­val, a group of mu­si­cians who now live in Vi­enna but were orig­i­nally from Syria had their visas re­fused.

As we re­called the words of Bruno Wal­ter, the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic or­ches­tra’s con­duc­tor who in 1947 spoke of the im­por­tance that “all the ties, which had been torn, should be re-united”, we in the UK con­tin­ued our march to­wards Brexit.

If one sub­ject has seemed ubiq­ui­tous through­out Au­gust, is it that of iden­tity. This seems ap­pro­pri­ate in a coun­try that has been through two ref­er­en­dums, which have asked ques­tions of what it means to be Scot­tish, Bri­tish, Euro­pean and a ci­ti­zen of the world. As an Irish­man, mar­ried to an Aus­tralian bring­ing up a fam­ily in Scot­land, this feels very per­sonal. For the first time, I am con­scious of an in­evitable process of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of EU na­tion­als. It is one thing to be al­lowed to re­main in a place; it is an­other to feel wel­come. I re­alise that this is a very priv­i­leged per­spec­tive but as I look around our of­fice I won­der how much the process of reg­is­tra­tion and our “new sta­tus” is weigh­ing on those in our team from coun­tries such as Spain, Poland and Ger­many.

Prac­ti­cal­i­ties aside, do they feel the bonds that tie them to our city loos­en­ing? I hope not but, as we’ve seen in so many shows this month, our idea of home can be frag­ile and ever-shift­ing. This has been par­tic­u­larly true of play­wright Zin­nie Har­ris’s unique con­tri­bu­tion of three works to the Fes­ti­val. In each, char­ac­ters strug­gle with fear, anger and grief as the worlds they thought they knew be­gin to frac­ture and dis­solve.

Be­yond ques­tions of cit­i­zen­ship and na­tion­hood there have been sto­ries that speak of gen­der, gen­er­a­tional divi­sion and re­li­gion. For the most part these have been deeply per­sonal – artists rarely give sim­ple an­swers to com­pli­cated ques­tions. Alan Ay­ck­bourn’s The Di­vide imag­ined a world where a poi­sonous con­coc­tion of re­li­gious fer­vour and state con­trol had cre­ated a dystopian night­mare. On the Fringe, Aus­tralian co­me­dian Han­nah Gadsby used the con­ceit of a stand-up show to de­liver a dev­as­tat­ingly per­sonal ac­count of prej­u­dice and abuse. As the tub-thump­ing rhetoric gets ever shriller, Ed­in­burgh has re­sponded, as it al­ways does, by ex­press­ing the hu­man di­men­sion of these is­sues – by telling sto­ries and shar­ing mu­sic.

This shouldn’t, how­ever, be viewed as a “soft” re­sponse. There is cer­tainly anx­i­ety in much of the work but very lit­tle lec­tur­ing or play­ing to the gallery. More of­ten we’ve seen hon­est at­tempts to un­der­stand the forces at work in to­day’s world and how peo­ple from all walks of life are try­ing to make sense of them amid their al­ready dif­fi­cult lives. In his ad­dress at the King’s The­atre last week, Aus­trian pi­anist Al­fred Bren­del said: “The only crowds I am not wary of are those in con­cert halls and the­atres.” I sus­pect this was an ap­peal to those of us run­ning or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val to en­sure that our per­for­mances en­cour­age thought and con­sid­er­a­tion but avoid telling the au­di­ence what to think.

Al­though plays, read­ings, stand-up com­edy, dance and con­certs are front and cen­tre,

I be­lieve Ed­in­burgh in Au­gust is best un­der­stood as a gath­er­ing of peo­ple and a cel­e­bra­tion of in­ter­na­tional ac­cord rather than a col­lec­tion of per­for­mances. Ed­in­burgh in Au­gust is, af­ter all, the best party in the world. When, in 2016, we em­bla­zoned the city with ban­ners pro­claim­ing “Wel­come, World”, we did not ex­pect such a strong re­sponse. Per­haps the idea of “wel­come” is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to coun­tries with a large di­as­pora who have made their lives in other coun­tries and con­ti­nents. In­deed the Ir­ish and Scots not only share the word “Failte” but re­gard it with a par­tic­u­lar rev­er­ence.

In his sum­mary of the 1947 Fes­ti­val, Pic­ture Post writer Lionel Birch wrote: “At least for the du­ra­tion of the Fes­ti­val, the tetch­i­ness and un­gen­eros­ity which have dis­fig­ured post-war Bri­tain were wiped away. In their place was the fresh spirit – the Fes­ti­val spirit, or the Chris­tian spirit, or the di­vine spirit, or the hu­man spirit, or what­ever you like to call it. Peo­ple treat­ing all other peo­ple with con­sid­er­a­tion, and in­deed (I have to say it) with love.”

I hope that as we cel­e­brate the Fes­ti­vals’ achieve­ments we have also given voice to some of our short­com­ings. In 1947, our coun­try was also per­ceived to be in cri­sis and the so­lu­tion to that cri­sis was seen to lie in al­liances and net­works, to reach out­ward and find ar­eas of con­sen­sus to re­alise a new vi­sion of the world or per­haps re-es­tab­lish the links that ex­isted be­fore the war. We have to ac­cept that many of our fel­low cit­i­zens be­lieve that our mech­a­nisms and in­sti­tu­tions of in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion have not served ev­ery­one equally. Al­though re­mark­able work is done by the en­tire Fes­ti­val fam­ily there are still far too many who feel ex­cluded from the Fes­ti­val and the arts more broadly.

The orig­i­nal pur­pose of the Fes­ti­val was to try to put aside the idea of “us” and “them” and fo­cus on that which we share. The sight of the mu­si­cians of St Petersburg’s Mari­in­sky Or­ches­tra and those of the Royal Scot­tish Na­tional Or­ches­tra play­ing in per­fect har­mony in the Usher Hall last week brought to mind how this could be achieved. How­ever, the chal­lenge in the com­ing years will be to look at how we can bridge a di­vide not just be­tween na­tions, but within our own com­mu­ni­ties.

The idea that the arts are part of a lib­eral elite needs to be chal­lenged – not on so­cial me­dia but with con­crete ac­tions. Cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions that are in­ter­na­tional in their out­look need to reach into the com­mu­ni­ties they serve like never be­fore. It is sim­ply not enough to present vis­it­ing work for a cos­mopoli­tan au­di­ence.

Those of us work­ing in fes­ti­vals and in­ter­na­tional arts or­gan­i­sa­tions need to fo­cus our en­er­gies on the in­ter­con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween our com­mu­nity and their coun­ter­parts in other coun­tries.

As the cur­tain falls on the 70th an­niver­sary Fes­ti­val, our at­ten­tion turns to the fu­ture and to 2018, ap­pro­pri­ately, the Year of Young Peo­ple in Scot­land. Over 70 years, the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val has seen po­lit­i­cal and so­cial up­heaval and has come out the other side.

How­ever grave the cir­cum­stances we cur­rently face, they are noth­ing com­pared to what Europe’s cit­i­zens had been through in the run-up to 1947. A spark of in­spi­ra­tion, a col­lec­tive will­ing­ness to work to­gether and a gen­eros­ity of spirit have cre­ated a legacy that has served Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land and the UK for gen­er­a­tions.

It is now up to us to imag­ine a fes­ti­val that in­spires and unites in equal mea­sure – a gen­er­ous and in­clu­sive flow­er­ing of the hu­man spirit. The Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val ends to­mor­row www.eif.co.uk

Joint win­ners: Han­nah Gadsby and John Robins

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