Edinburgh Fringe festival begins

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Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The 60th Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the "world's largest arts festival" opened on Sunday, August 6. It features more than 1,800 shows put on by 17,000 performers in 260 venues.

The Fringe now dominates the group of annual arts festivals that draw 750,000 visitors to Edinburgh every year, last year 1.3 million tickets were sold for Fringe shows. Anyone can register, pay a fee, find a venue and put on a show at the Fringe, famous for its quirky choice of venues - this year, they include a double-decker bus, a swimming pool, tree and a toilet; and "Hamlet" is being performed in a bouncy castle.

An estimated 160,000 people watched the Fringe Festival Cavalcade, a jamboree of more than 3000 marchers, which marks the launch of the Fringe.

Fringe director Gudgin urged audiences to be selective, saying that it would take five years, 11 months and 16 days to see all the shows back-to-back. The Festival is scheduled to end in August 28.

A recent Edinburgh City Council study concluded the Fringe brought more than £75m to the local economy each year. The festival's job openings included rickshaw drivers, show announcers to shouts details of the impending show and tell the audience when it is time to take their seats, and collectors to pick up flyers that people throw away.

Good opening

Several shows sold out in a strong opening weekend, including those by comedians Russell Brand, the "people's poet" Pam Ayres in his maiden Fringe venture and One Man Star Wars at the Underbelly. Comedians Jason Byrne, Simon Amstell and Danny Bhoy along with shows such as Best of the Fest and Ella Meets Marilyn starring Sally Lindsay and Rain Pryor are expected to join the list.

The Assembly venue, with theatres on George Street and the 800 Assembly Hall on the Royal Mile, said it had sold 97,000 tickets by last Friday - more than the entire number it sold in 1999.

Religious satire prominent

Australian comic Wil Anderson lays into the Catholic Church, including a send up of the late Pope John Paul II. Breaking the Pope is about the infamous Magdalene laundries, religious-run workhouses for women in Ireland that existed until the mid-90s. "Mary and The Stripper" contrasts the tales of Mary Magdalene and a 21st-century stripper hooked on heroin.

Danish-Egyptian comedian Omar Marzouk performs a standup routine on the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy.

We Don't Know Shi'ite, uses vox pops in the streets of Britain to highlight ignorance about Islam. The play's director Joshua Blackstone said, "Britain could work so much better as a multi-ethnic society if people were more open-minded. We could put to rest the stereotypes if there is more understanding,"

Rev Donald Reid, a spokesman for the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, a religious gathering that runs alongside the Fringe, welcomed the focus on religion, calling it a reflection of an upsurge in the thirst for faith and spirituality.

"Artists are testing the boundaries of how far they can go ... But religion should be able to be commented on and its absurdities pointed out.", he said.

In Bible Babel Live! the Bible is read, in English, Greek and Chinese, from start to finish in 80 hours over 10 days .

Speaking of the religious motif, the festival director Paul Gudgin said, "Clearly it's a very personal subject that artists and writers currently feel a particular need to explore,".

"It's either about what is happening with radical Islam or reflects interest and concern over the influence Evangelical Christians seem to be having in the United States," he told Reuters. Pointing to a "Da Vinci Syndrome", he said, "All of a sudden, these topics are of huge interest. What has surprised me is the breadth of shows on offer.".

The religious theme received further impetus from the Racial and Religious Hatred Act introduced in the UK, which sought to give all faiths equal protection, was condemned by comedians such as Rowan Atkinson who feared it would turn satire into a criminal offence.

Religion and politics mix

Jesus: The Guantanamo Years is a one-man show by Abie Philbin Bowman, is playing to sell-out houses. In the show, Bowman plays Jesus, a bearded Middle Eastern man arrested by U.S. immigration officials and sent to the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba after confessing he was ready to die as a martyr.

Bowman says comedy can be an effective weapon if used responsibly. "Being Irish and having grown up in the 1980s I have a sense of my own culture having been hijacked by terrorists and people assuming all Irish were terrorists," he said.

Petrol Jesus Nightmare, from the Traverse Theatre Company features two Israeli soldiers holed up under fire, an apocalyptic thriller about the violent consequences of faith has been seen as "prescient" of the ongoing Middle-east violence.

The Black Jew Dialogues and According to Jesus were other shows on offer. The Situation Comedy is a play from Israel about a suicide bombing written and performed by Robbie Gringras. According to Gringras, it was inspired by true events, including suicide bombings in Israel.

The Scotsman newspaper's theater critic Joyce McMillan called the Fringe "the most amazing barometer of world politics," The Fringe tackled terrorism last year, following the July 2005 London bombings.

In Breasts and Burgers, a surrealist spectacle adapted from a play by 20th-century avant-gardist Guillaume Apolliniare - the US flag is ripped apart onstage each night. Cecile Shea, the US consul in Scotland, has said the play could cause hurt to ordinary Americans.

Director Richard Franklin defended it as a comment on freedom of speech. "The most serious thing to come out of the war on terror is the excuse to create legislation against this freedom (of speech)" he told the Herald newspaper, "It is a symbolic thing and is intended as such."

An American tourist John McCabe visiting Edinburgh was unconvinced, saying "It seems the Stars and Stripes is an acceptable target in this liberal environment," and "I doubt the desecration of the Koran on stage would be tolerated. Free speech is one thing, but where's the proportionality? I certainly would not go and see this play."

Controversy over Churchill's cigar

Actor Mel Smith, who plays Winston Churchill in Allegiance had to go without lighting the trademark cigar, as smoking in an enclosed public space is now a crime in Scotland. Officials threatened to close down the theater, the Assembly Rooms, if he lit up.

"I think it's absurd. In the context of an international festival like this, it's crazy. It's integral to the part of Churchill and it doesn't affect other people - it's just absurd.", William Burdett-Coutts, who runs the Assembly Rooms, said.

Funding woes

Organisers of the Show have called for more funding, both from public sources as well as from private businesses, to help the show.

Anthony Alderson, the director of The Pleasance, told The Scotsman newspaper that without further private sector funding the Fringe could start to shrink and lose its standing as the world's best festival. He feared that the current rate of expansion is unsustainable without further support from businesses. The Fringe director Paul Gudgin said last year that the Festival would need to make a string of cutbacks if it was to combat major losses.

The Fringe Society currently receives only £45,000 a year from the city council and £25,000 from the Scottish Arts Council.

Gudgin also called for an urgent Scottish Executive response to the Thundering Hooves report into the future of Edinburgh's festivals, published this May. It pointed out that the festivals contribute £184 million a year to the Scottish economy and stressed the need for continued investment, long-term planning, and international promotion to beat off competition from other cities.

The Edinburgh City Council responded within a month with the announcement of a £1m fund for the various festivals. Some have argued that this money was already in the pipeline.

Fees go up

The Edinburgh City Council has announced increases in theatre licence fees, which venues must pay before holding a show. For venues with 200 seats or less, fees go up from £127 in 2005 to £440 this year, £620 next year and £800 in 2008. For venues seating more than a thousand, fees went up from £295 last year to £1,320 this year.

The Fringe Society, which represents the festivals managers and performers said it was "deeply concerned about the council's decision to make these sharp increases in theatre licence prices", adding that "particularly the smaller venues who will suffer,".

The Council said new laws meant the costs of its licensing scheme had to be recovered from venues. Councillor Jack O'Donnell, convener of the licensing regulatory committee, said the scheme had been operating at a deficit of £177,000.

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