New look Fes­ti­val that is boldly grow­ing in all di­rec­tions

The Herald - Arts - - OPINION - KEITH BRUCE

LAST Satur­day’s open­ing night of Alan Cum­ming Sings Sappy Songs at this year’s Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val was one of those oc­ca­sions about which folk used to say “if they’d dropped a bomb” be­fore that joke stopped be­ing at all funny. If any­one there had paid for a ticket, they were likely in the mi­nor­ity, on what was self-ev­i­dently “guest night”, so much so that those of us who would ac­tu­ally be turn­ing in a piece of work by writ­ing about it were in danger of be­ing choked by their own halo of virtue.

Cum­ming, to his credit, car­ried on as if he was per­form­ing to a “nor­mal” au­di­ence of pay­ing pun­ters un­til he got to the point where he had to ac­knowl­edge that two of the peo­ple who fea­tured in his lat­est hi­lar­i­ous show­busi­ness anec­dote – theatre di­rec­tor John Tiffany and chore­og­ra­pher Steven Hoggett – were in the room.

Along­side the celebri­ties, politi­cians, artists per­form­ing else­where on the Fes­ti­val and Fringe, pro­duc­ers, pro­mot­ers and hum­ble jour­nal­ists, were peo­ple like As­sem­bly’s Bill Bur­det­tCoutts and Karen Koren of the Gilded Bal­loon. I didn’t see Ed Bart­lam and Char­lie Wood of Un­der­belly, but if they weren’t there, they were as­suredly stand­ing in the same part of Cas­tle Ter­race as my­self the fol­low­ing night for Deep Time, the huge au­dio-visual spec­ta­cle to a soundtrack of Mog­wai mu­sic, along with 27,000 other folk.

That event fol­lowed last year’s Har­mo­nium Project, which used the Usher Hall rather than Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle as its can­vas, and which was in part de­signed to make peo­ple think about that ven­er­a­ble con­cert hall, cen­tral to the EIF pro­gramme since its be­gin­nings, but into which, new di­rec­tor Fer­gus Line­han noted then, a large num­ber of Ed­in­burgh peo­ple had never set foot.

A few may well have pay­ing their first visit on Mon­day evening, drawn by a chance to see and hear veteran Aus­tralian char­ac­ter co­me­dian and all-round eru­dite bloke Barry Humphries, who was pre­sent­ing an evening of Weimar Cabaret mu­sic in the com­pany of the tit­fer-sport­ing Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra.

If the peo­ple who run the big­gest venues on the Fringe hadn’t no­ticed be­fore – and of course they will have – there was an ob­vi­ous mes­sage in the open­ing days of the 2016 Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val. In the ar­got of in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy, Line­han has parked his tanks on their lawn. Of course they were all in­vited as guests to Cum­ming’s open­ing. Hav­ing stolen their clothes, it would have been rude not to ask them along to see how well they suited the pre­vi­ously ma­tronly EIF. And show off a bit. As well as the cabaret stuff, Line­han has also swiftly filled a gap left for con­tem­po­rary non-clas­si­cal “art” mu­sic by the demise of pre­vi­ous ini­tia­tives on the Fringe, as Neil Cooper ex­plained in this sec­tion a few weeks back, and he’d noted the suc­cess of Glas­gow’s Celtic Con­nec­tions and grabbed a bit of that ter­ri­tory too.

In just two years of pro­gram­ming, it has come to seem in­sane that no-one saw the pos­si­bil­i­ties for au­di­ence growth that the EIF was pre­vi­ously, slightly pre­ciously, ig­nor­ing. In th­ese days of col­le­giate en­deav­our un­der the Fes­ti­vals Ed­in­burgh ban­ner, it hasn’t even caused a row. At least in pub­lic.

And here is the per­fect an­swer to snooty folk who think that such pro­gram­ming has no busi­ness in their Fes­ti­val. The morn­ing Queen’s Hall recital se­ries – per­haps the most “elit­ist” el­e­ment of ev­ery Fes­ti­val – is hav­ing its most suc­cess­ful year ever, with as many tick­ets sold a week ago to­day as in the whole of last year. That is the knock-on ef­fect.

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