Saturday, 11 August 2018

The ‘middle-aged’ Edinburgh Fringe

Having daughters studying in Edinburgh, and knowing it’s a pretty and historic place to visit, was the main impetus for our holiday there at the start of August this year. I’d heard of the Fringe Festival and had been in Edinburgh before for day trips. Yet, in all honesty, I was unaware just how beautiful the city of Edinburgh actually is, and how much there is to do on the arts scene – especially during August. Or, maybe it’s the Irish in me - wanting to underestimate how cool a UK city can be.

I’ve been living in Donegal for 20 years now, and occasionally visit cities around Ireland, or more rarely, further afield. Donegal has been described as the ‘coolest place on the planet’ by National Geographic in 2017, and I see and appreciate its wild, natural beauty. If you want a getaway break, there’s nowhere like it, and I’m lucky to have it all on my doorstep.  If you want beaches and mountains, Donegal is pretty cool hands down. We have lots of cultural events too, of course, and arts venues and festivals, and I’m involved in running a local arts organisation in the North West called North West Words. But, being in Edinburgh recently, did make me realise again the sheer volume and ready availability of man-made, cultural attractions in a major city; I have to admit, it wooed me once more.

In my late teens (many years ago), I left a town in Northern Ireland to study in Belfast during the height of the troubles – you’ll not be surprised to hear that arts events were rare. By my early twenties, I’d moved to Dublin. In those days, cinema was one of the few affordable arts and theatre was an expensive treat. Eventually, moving back to town and country was a decision made for family reasons. Still, I remember well the excitement of moving to Dublin - somehow it seemed similar recently on visiting Edinburgh after so many years without the experience of living in a city. My daughters laughed at my excitement, and in turn, I noticed their blasé attitude to it all – they’re now used to having ready access to independent cinemas, contemporary art exhibitions and the largest arts festival in the world on their doorstep the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Nowadays, or maybe more so in the UK, lots of the events are affordable or free of charge.

I know I’m lucky to have a place to stay in Edinburgh, at this time of year, but if you ever get the chance, it’s wonderful to experience both the festivals and the city in August. It’s difficult to get your head around just how big the fringe festival alone is - over 300 venues and over 50,000 performances between 03rd and 26th August. I had associated it with comedy, but there are a range of different events including cabaret, theatre, dance, music, opera, childrens’ shows and spoken word. The whole centre of Edinburgh becomes a festival with acts on the streets, in bars, in cafes, in churches, in public buildings and spaces. Its scale, I found, mind-boggling.

I tried to browse online and in advance about what was on and available during our stay, but the list was too long to get my head around and to pick anything to go and see. The brochure is the size of a city phone book.  Not only that, but there’s the Edinburgh International Festival the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh Art Festival all running contemporaneously. I was like a rabbit in the headlights. My eldest daughter advised that we go, float about, and pick a few random shows that appealed – that had worked for her before.  I was nervous of this approach as I was afraid of missing something when we’d limited time there.  

In the end, we started with the old reliable of a walk around some city centre sights and a visit to a museum, The National Museum of Scotland  What a wonderful museum, and all free of charge – even the fashion room was a hit (including with my husband). Highlights for me were the Inchkeith Lighthouse Lens, The Millennium Clock, all of the fashion room (seriously cool), Dolly the sheep, a cast of Mary Queen of Scots tombstone (original in Westminster Abbey), the viewing balcony from the rooftop, and a temporary exhibition ‘Art of Glass’. The glass exhibition displayed stunning examples of artistic work in glass from around the UK – such a range of different and beautiful artefacts.


Out on the street again, we were approached constantly and offered flyers for fringe events. Still no further on, we started to collect a few flyers to mull over later. We dipped into one of the many beer gardens around the University of Edinburgh campus. What did we expect? It was full of  twenty- somethings drinking from plastic beer cups – we dipped out again for now.  

That evening, our daughters gave off to us – we were to stop going to things we could see another time and to start going to festival events and exhibitions – to live in the moment.  

The following day we took the duck and selected a few events from the flyers we’d lifted. We also booked ‘Shit-Faced Shakespeare’ who were playing Hamlet in the McEwan Hall. Shakespeare as I’ve never seen it before - with one drunk character. It was pretty hilarious and not for the easily-offended, with Queen Gertrude the drunk character for that performance. Hamlet certainly wasn’t left alone for the ‘To be or not to be…’  speech and it wasn’t just the audience doing the heckling. Inspired, we tried the beer garden again and this time with some twenty-somethings in tow – somehow, we’d embraced the chaos. The following day we tried to book Foil, Arms and Hog, but fair play to them, it was a sell-out.

In the remaining days we sampled some Free Fringe The Great Irish (Finnegans) Wake Off’ with four Irish comedians  ‘I am a rich man and I have many sons’ Andrew O’Neill  ‘Gig Economy’ Christian Reilly and ‘Mental’ Dave Chawner We were never disappointed – all the shows were very different but very entertaining. These events run on donations after the show (or free, if you can’t afford or have the heart to ignore the donation bucket). So, after all, our eldest daughter’s advice was best – just dive in, take a chance and choose some random shows.


Alongside all the fun, chaos and craic, what surprised me most was just how much I loved the contemporary art exhibitions we visited in the Edinburgh Art Festival. The highlight of my visit (also voted so by my husband) was The Green Man, Lucy Skaer, at the Talbot Rice Gallery. The exhibition is designed for this particular space  and inspired by many found objects from collections of the University of Edinburgh. WOW is about all I can say – maybe I’ll manage a poem at some stage that definitely won’t do it justice.


 Having recently watched the BBC 2 Imagine programme on Tacita Dean  we had both noticed that she had an exhibition in Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh It was one of our few advanced plans. ‘Woman with  a Red Hat’  didn’t disappoint. Although, I wish I’d gone upstairs for the information video first, but apart from that it was very thought provoking. I’m still mulling over her film about the acting process.

Two final exhibitions were also both inspirational and haunting. A Bill Viola video in the St. Cuthbert’s Church, and Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation at the fire station, Tolcross. The former is in the already intriguing location of an ancient church and graveyard below Edinburgh Castle and beside the main thoroughfare of Princess Street in Edinburgh. The short video is played beside the church altar and is both mesmerising and contemplative. The latter is haunting, disturbing and pensive. ‘For in your tongue I cannot hide’ records the writings of 100 international poets jailed for their writing. In a darkened space, with poems speared to metal spikes, microphones are suspended from the ceiling and poems are read and lines repeated. Sometimes there’s a chorus of lines, otherwise, one microphone reads a poem – some are in English but others in Arabic, Hindu, Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Russian among other languages. It’s an immersive experience of sound and sight – deeply moving. 

Just to top it all, Edinburgh is also a seriously beautiful and historic city full of sights to see at any time of year. We’ll be back as soon as possible.

  Deirdre McClay

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