Mukul and Shilpa Gupta
You may have heard the sounds of silence but have you heard the electrifying buzz of freedom? It’s a moot question for anyone who has visited Edinburgh in August. For every year since the past many decades, performers representing each continent unfailingly converge on the Scottish capital in this month. Every wall of each road and close (an alley with a dead end) is doused with posters and flyers. The cobbled streets, scattered with brochures and leaflets, turn kaleidoscopic. Historic squares transform into performance arenas. This is the indomitable Festival Fringe, dubbed “the world’s greatest platform for creative freedom”. Statistics prove its hallowed status: Almost 60,000 performers and more than 3,500 shows packed into three weeks of August. Apparently, the city’s population soars more than double.
So, what imparts tinsel-edge to the Fringe? Its backstory, to start with. In 1947, around the time we in India were celebrating our nascent Independence, the inaugural Edinburgh international festival was being held (attracting some of the finest performers and ensembles of dance, opera, music and theatre, it is an annual fixture that continues). A few companies that hadn’t been invited decided to rebel by turning up and defiantly performing on the sidelines. This gave birth to the Fringe as well as its moniker. A mark of protest would go on to take the tone and tenor of the largest and most iconic such festival in the world. Today, Festival Fringe has many versions — even New York has one — but nothing matches the quirkiness of the Edinburgh edition.
Making it a carnival unlike another is the fact that the Fringe is thrown open to everyone. From big-ticket celebrities to up-and-coming artistes and novices too, anyone can put up a show. The criterion is that they should be able to pay for the journey. While this underlines the festival’s universal and inclusive ethos, it also throws up exciting prospects for the audiences.
The genre is no bar either. There are dancers, gymnasts, comedians, actors, burlesque dancers, mime artistes, storytellers, acrobats, musicians, freaks … at any given time, someone is performing somewhere. And it’s not all in established venues like theatres and clubs. The entire city is Fringe-ready and ad hoc spaces like spare rooms and public parks convert into performance spaces. To cater to the global popularity of the festival, the festival tickets are up for sale up to six months in advance.
The Free Edinburgh Festival runs parallel to the official festival, and lots of buskers and performers take over the streets, pavements and public spaces for free. The Royal Mile, stretching from the Edinburgh Castle to the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, called the Palace of Holyroodhouse, is your safest bet to catch some of the explosive action without paying a dime. For those on a budget and looking for an irresistible bargain, the festival organisers have installed a half-price hut.
It’s not the Fringe alone that makes Edinburgh what it is: an international hub of arts and culture. The city hosts 10 other iconic festivals each year on films, books, storytelling, science and military traditions, among others. Many of these are organised in August, making it the busiest — and buzziest — time for Edinburgh. Now that you know the meaning of the buzz of freedom, it’s time to hear it.
- Actor Emma Thomson’s journey to the Oscars began years earlier with the Fringe when, as a student at Cambridge, she brought the show The Cellar Tapes with her troupe. It won an award at the festival, and the rest, well, is on the celluloid for the world to see.
- The historic city of Edinburgh has served as an inspiration for many of the Harry Potter books and its movie versions were also shot extensively in the city. Fans can go on the Potter Trail, a tour that goes through all the relevant sites like Grey Friars Kirkyard and Victoria Street.
- Unbelievably, Edinburgh has the world’s first (and only) knighted penguin. You may want to peel away from the Fringe for a while to doff your hat to Sir Nils Olav at the city zoo.
(This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe ends on August 26)