Edinburgh's bountiful cultural feast. Festival and its `Fringe' keep attracting crowds despite a slack season

NO sight was more pervasive on the streets here during the waning days of summer than second-string actors with their handbills extolling the virtues of ``anarchist theater'' along the Royal Mile or ``Marxist magic'' down in New Town. What brought these aspiring thespians to Scotland's capital was its famed Edinburgh International Festival, an annual three-week cultural extravaganza that adds up to one of the largest gatherings of performing artists in the world.

The 42-year-old festival sits upon the brow of this serene Georgian capital a wee bit like a lampshade perched atop the giddy visage of a normally proper descendant of Robert Burns.

Not that anyone goes so far as to call Edinburgh, with its soot-caked buildings and polished cobblestone byways, the Hollywood of the North. But every August, this Scottish metropolis, whose bracing spirit seems to spring from equal parts Protestantism and porridge, becomes a mecca for thousands of performers - from student actors to established international stars.

`Macbeth' over breakfast

``Oh, do pop along to the show,'' implored one festival performer, waving a promotional banner that read: ``Shakespeare for breakfast - good morning, Macbeth - 40 minutes of love and death washed down by coffee and croissants.''

``Look,'' he said in his Scottish brogue, ``I'm one of the actors, and I can tell you, it's brilliant.''

Indeed, in this less-than-stellar season, nothing distinguished the festival so much as the hyperbole of aspiration.

The event is really two enormous festivals in one - the official version and the unofficial ``Fringe'' (not to mention concurrent film, television, and jazz festivals).

``On an average day you could choose among 350 programs,'' said Mhairi Mackenzie-Robinson, administrator of the Fringe festival. ``And that's just the Fringe. On a really busy day, between the two festivals you could choose 500 events.''

Tot up all the 1988 offerings, and you get nearly 500 companies on hand here, more than 900 shows offered, and some 10,000 performances.

These ranged from such main-festival companies as the Scottish National Orchestra and the Houston Grand Opera performing in theaters and concert halls to bizarre Fringe cabaret acts and one-person comedy routines presented in church basements, Masonic lodges, even inside cars. Festival lore has it that a program was once mounted in a hole in the ground.

This year, one of the hottest Fringe tickets was ``Rod Quantock's Bus,'' in which audience members accompanied Mr. Quantock on a motorbus tour around the city, assisting the Australian comedian in his ``invasion'' of various ports of call, including Edinburgh's RAS Club Men's Bar.

In the main festival, the scope has unquestionably broadened through the efforts of its artistic director, Frank Dunlop, and his predecessor, John Drummond. Both sought to popularize the event, which until recent years was music-based and top-heavy with superstars like Pl'acido Domingo, Maria Callas, Yehudi Menuhin, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

The last few seasons have presented a more varied, if quirkier, roster of artists, including stage troupes like Poland's Staya Theater of Krakow, South Africa's Market Theater of Johannesburg, Ireland's Abbey Theater, and America's Flying Karamazov Brothers.

The local and London press have suggested it was the need to make ends meet that has forced Mr. Dunlop, who arrived in 1983, to re-tailor the festival to popular tastes. Even though Edinburgh's District Council, which supplies one-sixth of the festival's budget, has pledged a new three-year funding package to circumvent the annual wrangling over money, one-third of the festival's $5.1 million budget has to be earned from ticket sales.

Overall festival attendance this year remained steady at a healthy 70 percent of capacity. But the British critics were devastating. They called the overall lineup little short of disaster. In the theatrical realm, they deemed only one of the productions an unqualified hit - the British premi`ere of the Houston Grand Opera production of John Adams's ``Nixon in China.''

Dunlop, however, said their reaction was rubbish, citing some 3,000 attendees for that premi`ere alone. ``That would never happen in London,'' he countered.

Nonetheless, the baying over what the critics saw as a declining standard appears to have reached a crescendo. Several of them are calling for the removal of Dunlop and his populist artistic agenda. They want a return to the high-caliber fare of festivals gone by.

Launched in 1947 by opera impresario Rudolf Bing, the festival has reigned as one of the world's most prestigious international gatherings of artists. The corresponding, if cheekily unofficial, Fringe festival - comprised of hundreds of comedy and cabaret acts and avant-garde theater performances - supplements the official festival, which was dominated by its musical side for most of its first three decades.

Under Dunlop's predecessor, John Drummond, and increasingly since Dunlop's arrival, the number of Fringe events has increased markedly, and the official program has moved away from its musical underpinnings toward more theater.

Referring to this year's edition, Owen Dudley-Edwards, a history and theater professor at Edinburgh University and a contributor to a city daily, The Scotsman, said, ``This is not a neck-sticking-out kind of festival. However, this is a far more varied and vigorous festival than it was during the 1960s, the heyday of snob opera.''

Sampling the `world theater' program

My own sampling of the event tends to confirm that this is, indeed, a festival in need of better direction and renewed artistic vision.

The core productions were in the so-called ``world theater'' program. These included Japan's Ninagawa Theatre Company performing a Noh-inspired version of Shakespeare (``The Tempest''); West Germany's Schiller Theatre Company performing a French classic (Offenbach's ``La Perichole''); the Paris-based Argentine troupe, Group TSE, performing an 18th-century French play (Marivaux's ``Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard''); a troupe of Cree Indians from Canada satirizing reservation life (``The Rez Sisters''); and the Americans performing the Adams opera. Italy's scheduled Peppe e Barra troupe didn't show up.

Too many of the core productions turned out to be commendable concepts badly executed. By festival's end, the body count of fatally flawed productions - the lone exceptions being the Ninagawa Company and ``Nixon in China'' - was at record levels. Of the seven festival productions seen by this writer, the only other one that seemed worthy of festival status was the Group TSE's animal-masked version of the Marivaux play.

On the boisterous and uncensored Fringe, the ambience was less like a cultural rite than a trade show, in which thousands of on-the-way-up performers hoped to win a nod from one of a growing number of visiting producers.

``I came to Edinburgh specifically to meet a TV producer,'' said London-based comic Malcom Hardee.

``This is a convention that everyone must do,'' said Harold Easton, a veteran of the Fringe and the producing director of the American Festival Theater, a loosely-knit group of US actors performing on the Fringe. ``For American actors, it's a great experience, but for British performers it is just not to be missed.''

Indeed, so well known has the Fringe become throughout Britain that many London-based comedians, including Jo Brand and Jeremy Hardy, label their summer shows ``Edinburgh Previews.''

Amid complaints that comedy had taken over the Fringe (nearly one-third of this year's offerings were either one-man cabaret shows or comedy acts), the rewards of being labeled a Fringe hit were considered enormous. The top comedy prize is the coveted Perrier Award, which brings $2,550 in prize money and a guaranteed run at London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre. Last year's winner, Glasgow standup comic Allen Browne, went on to do a series of sell-out performances and a pilot for a TV talk show.

Professional interest in the Fringe isn't confined to producers from Britain, however. Talent scouts from comedy festivals in Montreal and Melbourne, as well as from general arts festivals in Dublin and Sydney and from New York's Home Box Office cable TV company were spotted in the ``Assembly Rooms,'' the Fringe's official loci. In fact, the Assembly Rooms are one of the few Fringe venues with audience capacities large enough for a sellout performer to earn a profit.

With the cost of mounting a Fringe production as high as $17,000, most performers don't break even, but they consider the financial loss here an investment in their careers.

``This is the event that all the agents come and see,'' said David Glass, a London-based mime and performance artist. ``In the three weeks here, I can get bookings for an entire year.''

Despite the growing commercialism of the Fringe and the popularization of the main event - not to mention longstanding complaints from the audience that there's too much bad theater and from the performers that there is too small an audience - Edinburgh's twin festivals show no signs of flagging.

Indeed, Edinburgh remains perhaps the only place where, after a rousing exhibition by the Pipe and Drum Corp of the Royal Highland Fusiliers at the Royal Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade, one can clatter down the cobblestoned Royal Mile to join 30 other drowsy people watching Ian Saville, the ``Socialist Conjurer,'' performing his ``Class Struggle Rope Trick'' into the wee hours of the morning.

The mind-boggling variety and the spirit of Edinburgh itself are what keep the festival alive.

``It's great to be able to play to ordinary Scottish people who save up all year long to go see theater during the festival,'' said Mr. Glass. ``Just the other day an Edinburgh woman saw my show and then took me out for a cream tea. Now that was lovely.''

Hilary DeVries covers regional theater for the Monitor.

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