(The following article appeared in The Guardian, June 17. Lyn Gardner, Brian Logan, Andrew Celemtns, Alexis Petridis, Judith Mackrell and Adrian Searle outline the festivities.)
Edinburgh festival 2009: our critics pick the best
Don't listen to the doom-mongers – the Edinburgh festival is adapting in style to changing times. Lyn Gardner introduces this year's lineup, and our critics pick out the highlights
For the 20-odd years I've been going to Edinburgh in August, the naysayers have been predicting the festivals' imminent demise. (There are at least three of them: the international festival, the Fringe, the Free Fringe.) Their critics say they are too big, too baggy, too highbrow, too lowbrow; that the international festival (EIF) can't afford the best of the best; that the Fringe has been overrun by comedians and exhibitionists. Add to that the recession, and last year's fiasco on the Fringe – a chaotic new ticketing system – and many thought that 2009 would be the year Edinburgh went pop.
Well, there's no sign of catastrophe. Neither the Fringe nor the EIF would still be in existence if they hadn't proved their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Certainly, Edinburgh faces challenges to its cultural status from other cities: the Manchester international festival is securing exciting new commissions, while programmes such as Bite at London's Barbican offer a wide range of international work. The EIF has had to up its game.
In his third year of programming. EIF's director, Jonathan Mills, continues to remind us just how dusty things had become under his predecessor, Sir Brian McMaster. This year's programme is an invigorating one, loosely linked to the Scottish Enlightenment and the theme of homecoming. Mills, reflecting the trend towards cross-fertilisation, has programmed work that encourages audiences to look beyond their preferred art forms.
As for the Fringe, it seems to be defying the recession: now in its 63rd year, it is still expanding, albeit by the tiniest of margins (there are 10 more shows this year than last). On the Fringe, of course, bigger doesn't always mean better: an ever-expanding festival must also find an ever-expanding audience, which could be tricky in the current climate.
Still, I think this year's programme shows signs of real quality. The Traverse theatre is mixing new work with proven hits, including Simon Stephens's Sea Wall, David Greig's Midsummer and Judith Thompson's acclaimed triptych, Palace of the End. We also have the British Council's biannual showcase of the best of UK theatre, including companies such as Subject to Change, Cartoon de Salvo, Uninvited Guests and Sound & Fury. (This takes place over the final week of the Fringe, so if you are only going for a short time, it makes sense to go then – by which time the EIF will also be in full swing.) The Scottish Arts Council is doing something similar, funding Scottish artists such as Grid Iron, The Arches, Nic Green and David Leddy.
Of course, audiences may decide that costs are too great this year, and stay away. But so far, the signs are good: ticket sales for the EIF are close to last year's figures (it's too soon to say for the Fringe, whose programme was only announced last week). Meanwhile, the Free Fringe continues to grow, offering 465 free performances; Forest Fringe, a free mini-festival, is expanding, too.
One thing is for certain: Edinburgh 2009 will be a unique experience, as it always is – quite unlike any festival that came before it, and any yet to come.
Full festival details at eif.co.uk and edfringe.com
Dennis Kelly is a writer with a real ability to surprise and shock. His latest, directed by Roxanna Silbert, is a contemporary suspense story with a twist about moral responsibilities and what goes on behind the curtains. Traverse Theatre (0131-228 1404), 1-30 August.
The Last Witch
Playwright Rona Munro was inspired by the true story of Janet Horne, the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Dominic Hill directs a new play about the psychology of fear in closeknit communities. Royal Lyceum (0131-248 4848), 23-29 August.
The Girls of Slender Means
Judith Adams is the perfect choice to adapt Muriel Spark's sly and tender novel about a group of young women living on little more than hope and euphoria in the period between VE and VJ Day in 1945. Assembly@St George's Street (0131-623 3030), 6-31 August.
An extraordinary festival of experimental work, free to all, from such stellar companies as Improbable, BAC, The Miniaturists, Curious, Third Angel, Rotozaza, Little Bulb, Coney, Mel Wilson, Hide & Seek and Stoke Newington International Airport. Forest Fringe (forestfringe.co.uk), 17-29 August.
Peter and Wendy
Mabou Mines, whose infamous version of A Doll's House played at Edinburgh in 2007, uses puppetry and a live band to reinvent JM Barrie's story. Forget panto and Disney – this avant-garde company mines the cruelty. Royal Lyceum (0131-248 4848), 2-5 September.
Analogue were one of the finds of the 2007 festival with their debut, Mile End. The multimedia company returns to where it all started with a horribly topical show exploring one man's decision to kill himself. Pleasance Dome (0131-556 6550), 5-30 August (except 17 and 24).