The Edinburgh festivals are back – but not as we know them. Last year was the first time since their founding in 1947 that the international festival and its restless, noisy sibling, the fringe, were cancelled. The Edinburgh international book festival, in the meantime, went digital, and found an audience online. This year the book festival’s model is hybrid. It has moved from its former digs in Charlotte Square to the Edinburgh College of Art, from where events with a live audience will be streamed. Though capacity for in-person audiences, socially distanced, is relatively small, a big screen outdoors will relay events to those visiting its “village green”, which will be equipped with a bookshop, cafe – and, it is hoped, an actual festival atmosphere.
The international festival has created a number of outdoor venues – shielded from the rain by temporary structures that bear a passing resemblance to polytunnels – in locations such as Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad. Attempting to mount an international festival in a time of international travel restrictions must be considered a logistical nightmare, but that has opened up the chance for more local events and new kinds of collaboration – such as traditional musician Aidan O’Rourke’s meditation on “Little Ireland”, the part of Edinburgh’s Old Town in which he lives, this past year emptied of its usual roving population of tourists. The project will see O’Rourke performing with Irish musicians, and a film made with fellow Edinburgh-dweller, film-maker Mark Cousins.
The fringe, perhaps, has it hardest in this curious, coming-back-to-life year. In-person shows are down from a pre-pandemic, and possibly unsustainable, 3,800 to about 440. New, big-name comedy shows are especially sparse. A determined optimist could read all this as a welcome return to the fringe’s roots – though that would be to ignore the huge economic impact of it in its pomp, and the interconnectedness of all aspects of it from spend in local shops to taxi drivers’ income.
Stalwart producers at venues such as the Pleasance and Assembly have returned, unbowed, to stage a number of events, albeit at a much smaller scale than usual. Summerhall has built an open-sided outdoor theatre. Courtesy of the Traverse, Dance Base and others, audiences have a city-centre multistorey carpark as a new venue: a carpark with a remarkable view of Edinburgh Castle that once took a small but starring role in David Greig’s play Midsummer, when its pay-station display told a character, fatefully, that “change is possible”.
There is an audience in town, with an appetite for shows. The gaps, perhaps, are in what pandemic conditions render difficult: the bumpings-into at the bar, connections made between artists and producers and promoters, and all the intangibles of what a festival actually feels like. There is an open question about whether the many tiny venues of the Edinburgh fringe, which normally double up as anything from storerooms to barrooms, will ever be capable of being made properly Covid-19 secure for future years. But it’s August, and there are festivals back in Edinburgh. It’s a start. Change is not only possible – but in this case, inevitable.