My Festival: A Reflection
Before me on the kitchen wall is a handsome gathering of old photographs. It contains all the usual, familiar faces: parents, siblings, Grandmother Mary and a beautiful little Irish Setter named Sophie (the previous two are now, sadly, no longer with us). The picture that has caught my eye, however, is one entitled "John & Eades: Fringe 2002". It shows, from left to right, myself and my good friend John Thoumire, holding up a street sign in our rather disgruntled looking bachelor pad, grinning, as the Australians say, like a pair of shot foxes.
I remember the occasion well. We had been out most of that afternoon soaking up the Festival atmosphere and the occasional beat of British sunshine. Before too long, unfit and thirsty, we stumbled into the Underbelly. A charming and, some might say, quaint Festival tavern on the Cowgate. And for those who are at all familiar with either one of us, it will not be of too much surprise to know that we stumbled in with far more eloquence than we stumbled out.
We ventured, like the intrepid (or fool hearted) explorers that we were, into some sweaty and fragrantly curious club next door where, after another shot of Dutch courage, we proceeded to fail to discover any hope of rhythm in our youthful, though apparently severely uncoordinated, bodies. To this day, I cannot begin to describe to you what it was that was blearing out of the speakers that night. All I do know is that my hips and ears have never ever truly found the humanity to forgive me.
What is truly striking about this photo, however, is not the blatant and shameless disregard for public property that is so obviously being put on display. Nor even the more sinister crime being committed to fashion and general decency by my apparently schizophrenic facial hair. A vain and misguided attempt to appear wiser than my years (how times change).
It is as with all reflection. It is the recognition of the time that has passed and the change that has accompanied it. Edinburgh Festival 2002, the birth of the discussed photograph, was my first summer as a theatre critic, not only for this publication but for any publication. That makes this year something of an anniversary for me. And though I am not really one to over sentimentalize or dwell too much on the past (he wipes away a solitary tear), it is a curious thing to recognise your own evolution, the evolution of your world and the evolution of your relationship to it. In this case I am, of course, referring to the Edinburgh Festival.
Though not born in this country and have not resided in this wonderful city for as long as I might have liked, I do now feel that I can claim Edinburgh as part of my own turf. And, whilst my sing-songy Welsh accent and memories of cloudless skies have all but diminished over the thirteen years that I have been an Edinburgh resident, the Festival has enriched my life and has become the absolute highlight of my year. Far outweighing that rather over bloated and over sung tradition that we can’t help but endure as the bells approach twelve on December 31st.
During August there is no better place to be than within our great capital. Of course, there may be some local residents that may disagree with this cheerful statement, dreading the inevitable bombardment of leaflets, fire eaters and "Excuse me! Can you tell me where the castle is?". This is all very well and understandable, but we should not forget that this city, our city, hosts the largest and greatest arts festival on the planet. It has huge cultural, not to mention economical, significance and has brought enjoyment and enlightenment to millions. If that is not something to cherish and protect, then I don’t know what is.
To look back, however, and say that the festival is the same today as it was ten years ago would be to overlook the obvious. The first, and perhaps most significant, difference to point out, if indeed it need pointing out, is the inevitable expansion of this unique event. Every year the number of performances leaps rather than creeps forward, facilitated by a seemingly endless supply of venues (the Underbelly’s expansion over the past ten years is the most telling example).
Now, on the one hand, this can only be a good thing. Wherever you are, whenever you are, it is near impossible not to discover some sort of theatre or comedy show from the spot you are standing. However, on the other hand, it is near impossible not to discover some sort of theatre or comedy show from the spot you are standing.
It must also be remembered of the ability of human beings to choose when given too much choice. It always seemed far easier to settle on a program when there were only five television channels to flick through (or four, if you can remember that distant period in history?) than the five thousand million we do now. Some may put this down to the quality of the entertainment. Who am I to argue? This may indeed be, at the very least, partially true. I’m just more inclined to believe that people are a little easier to overwhelm than they care to let on. And, subsequently, end up watching nothing.
Whenever I engage in conversation with someone older or with more Edinburgh years than I, they are never shy to point out just how expensive a hobby all of this Festival going is these days. They, of course, would be right to say so. "I remember when I could go in and see a show for a couple of quid!" is the familiar, well-rehearsed, line. Though I don’t doubt this to be true, it is almost impossible to imagine that such loose change could get you far anywhere these days. The Festival has become such a large and lively beast that it needs a hearty dollar to survive. And, personally, I am all for keeping it alive and kicking, rather than allowing it to deplete into a sour whimper. But this is all easier said than done. Who really has the money anymore?
The most important change that the Festival has to wrestle with, however, is the change of today. It is the responsibility of all art, or at least so they say, to hold a mirror up to the world and invite us all to discuss, or at least acknowledge, what is reflected. And this, ultimately, is down to the artists. Back in 2002, the world was still catching its breath from the September 11th attacks and bracing itself for a long and dirty war. Terrorism was your next door neighbour and fear was the very food we ate. It was a comedian's dream.
And what of the now? We’ve already established that we’re all stone broke. The world population has just recently hit the 7 billion mark. Syria is being more than a little bit naughty and Scotland has to start thinking about what it really wants for itself. And that’s just the tip of the ice berg. Don’t even get me started on the Cruise/Holmes fiasco…..man, we’re all screwed.
So, I look to the kitchen wall for comfort. John and Eades: Fringe 2002. That was my Festival back then. The street sign. The dancing. The inexplicable facial hair…. The same Festival that some of you may have yet to experience. Random parties with random people. Sitting up all night drinking green wine, talking about the cosmos, God, theatre, art, Marxism, truth, lies and honesty. All the things that might seem a little pretentious and over Ernest later on, but a fun journey to take all the same. That journey has brought me to my new Festival. I still strive to encounter liberating knowledge and an inquisitive atmosphere and even stretch for a glass of the house red pre (maybe even post) show. It’s just, these days, my festival is more of a quiet festival (if that’s not an oxymoron).
Our own experience of the Festival changes as the years go by. Just as the venues, prices and artistic focus shift with the times. But if I have got any advice for this August at all, I must draw your attention to one other piece of news that I forgot to mention: It’s 2012. The world is going to end. Go nuts!