August 6th marks the beginning of a three-week explosion of non-stop energy that pulsates through Scotland’s breathtaking capital. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe or ‘The Fringe’ is the largest annual arts festival in the world and includes 32,000 performances and more than 2,000 shows packed into 250 venues across the city.
The Fringe, originated by the uninvited, fringe artists of the Edinburgh International Festival, hosts a slew of unapproved and unrestricted performances that range from big-budget, high production spectacles showcased in lavish theatres to low-budget buskers who display their talent on street corners. Audiences can view anything from traditional, full troupe Shakespearean plays to one-woman interpretive African dance routines.
I’ve spent two years in Edinburgh during The Fringe and have seen a variety of shows. My Fringe experience includes a one-man show of forgotten lines, an Argentinean sensory overload, a time-honored military tradition and a titillating burlesque number that would make even the raciest of us blush.
Insider tip: There is a half-price ticket hut located on Princes Street (the main thoroughfare that separates Old Town and New Town) in front of the Princes Street Mall. The hut sells day-of tickets for half price to an assortment of shows around the city. This is a great option if you want to experience The Fringe on a budget and you’re not sure exactly what you want to see.
Oh La La
I took advantage of the half-price ticket hut and purchased tickets for a Vaudeville show which turned out to be a sultry cabaret burlesque number. A good deal on the tickets turned into a good deal of surprise as my husband and I watched a show of saucy sing-along dance numbers complete with fishnets and nipple tassels. The show was modern yet paid homage to old-time saloon entertainment. My first experience with burlesque was undeniably tasteful and pleasant.
Set to an array of music like the Scissor Sister’s song ‘Filthy/Gorgeous’ and the ‘Chattanooga Choo-choo’ this light-hearted cabaret show dazzled with routines that were comedic, nudity that was graceful, and costumes that were tantalizing beautiful. A small cast of British gals flaunted their healthy proportions and quite literally bounced along to the music. As I sipped my bubbly, huddled around a cabaret table in a dimly lit theatre, I couldn’t help but feel the contagious excitement of the actors and the sheer amusement of the audience around me. Though not for everyone, this burlesque was a nice and unexpected surprise.
Insider Tip: There is a program of all the shows online and in a printed version that can be found all around the city during the month of August. Do some research before you buy tickets to a show if you want to be sure of what you are going to see. Or, be spontaneous, live on the edge and choose blindly from the hundreds of half-price tickets for sale. You may be pleasantly surprised (like I was) or not.
Time Honored Tradition
A more modest and notable performance of the Edinburgh Festival is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. No, no, no…it has nothing to do with needles, ‘getting inked’ or displaying ‘tats’. The Military Tattoo is a military drum performance complete with bagpipes and performers from over 30 countries.
More than 12 million people have attended the Tattoo and the annual audience is around 217,000. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is performed every night during the festival, live on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle. The event has been sold out in advance for the past decade and is one of the most sought after tickets of the Edinburgh Festival.
The music played by the lone piper standing on the castle ramparts will send a thrill up your spine whether you’re a fan of bagpipes or not. The sun is setting, the torches are lit. On the esplanade of the great Edinburgh Castle, 150 bagpipers play Scottish Tunes with hundreds of highland dancers. To close out the evening, more than 8000 people sing Auld Lang Syne. You can't help but get a bit teary-eyed hearing Robert Burns' poem sung in such a magnificent setting.
Insider Tip: I bought tickets for the Tattoo in January (7 months in advance) and was only able to obtain modest seats. Buy online early in the year to secure good seats. On that note, a good seat is a subjective term. No matter where you sit the close quarters will make you will feel like you’re in your neighbor’s lap.
Another big-budget production I had the privilege of seeing was Fuerza Bruta which means Brute Force. Fuerza Bruta is an Argentinean production from Buenos Aires that toured Edinburgh in 2007. Fuerza Bruta is the most expensive and technically elaborate show to ever hit The Fringe. The show, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, is pure sensation and has the audience feeling and reeling from the beginning. Pounding music is played as the audience enters the 360 degree theatre and stands in a clump, circling a stage. In the first scene a man runs endlessly on a treadmill dodging bullets and crashing through brick walls made of cardboard. The audience then walks clockwise as a group while rave music plays on like a sledgehammer.
The pushing and shoving of your neighbors in the massive heap of a crowd is all part of the experience as Fuerza Bruta insinuates a theme of struggle. Scene after scene the audience moves with the performance to the left and to the right. Then towards the end of the performance our gaze is turned upward. We look up at young women hurling themselves across a transparent swimming pool above our heads. The giant, clear, suspended ‘Slip ‘N Slide’ amuses as athletic sirens frolic in the surf. Gradually the Lucite pool is lowered towards us and we reach our hands up to touch the unearthly ladies who remain just beyond our grasp, a lot like the deeper meaning of this fantastic production.
An insider tip: Tickets for Fuerza Bruta were about $50. Most tickets for other shows should be well below that.
What Was My Line?
While some performances like the Tattoo and Fuerza Bruta are unforgettable, others are forgettable or worse, forgettable to the actor himself. I stumbled upon a production on High Street (Edinburgh’s Main Street) that was free, beginning in 5 minutes and still had tickets available. It sounded too good to be true. I walked in and found a seat in the crowded theatre. Minutes later a man walked out and began his one-man show. He mimed and acted without objects. He even rode in an imaginary car while having a conversation with another character, played by himself.
It didn’t start out too bad but as the show progressed the one and only performer began to forget his lines. He’d make up lines and other times would stare out into the audience in long awkward pauses. Minute by minute audience members walked out without shame or remorse. Before long, I was the only person left in the theatre. The poor performer gazed out to me with both appreciation for staying and embarrassment, hoping I’d soon leave too. He cut his bit short and wrapped the show up in a clumsy way. Though I was the only person left in the audience and the show was miserable, I emphatically clapped anyway. It takes a lot of courage to get up on stage and I admired the actor for carrying on through this disaster of a show.
Insider Tip: More often than not you get what you pay for. Usually the free shows are free for a reason.
I’ve had the privilege to see multiple Fringe shows and feel lucky to have experienced the madness of August in Edinburgh two years in a row. The above four descriptions are only a sampling of what’s on offer at The Festival. Of the 32,000 performances there are many burlesque shows each with a different theme; the Military Tattoo is an annual performance, though tickets sell out early in the year; Fuerza Bruta is not in Edinburgh this year but can be seen in 2010 in New York and Chicago; many free performances can be found in venues around the city though buyer, rather non-buyer, beware. For current information on venues, performances, and ticket prices refer to The Fringe program online.
Perhaps the most impressive sight of The Fringe is bustling, mobbed streets of Edinburgh itself filled with freelance rappers, pink-haired magicians, flame throwers, accordion players with their buskering Chihuahuas, juggling unicycle riders, young actors dressed as Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, contortionists and every other kind of aspiring performer. In an age when theatre is often pushed to the backburner, an entire city of artists and audiences talking day and night about virtually nothing else is quite a spectacle.