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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 278-280
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Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Edinburgh, Scotland. 8-30 August 1999.
1999 marked the fifty-third year of the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest arts festival, which was started alongside the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival only to eventually overtake the latter in size and popularity. The first year, eight theatre companies participated in what truly was a spontaneous and unorganized alternative to the "official" festival. This past three-week festival included 607 theatre companies that together produced 1,346 different performance pieces ranging from stand-up comedy, millennium-themed productions and musicals, to Shakespearean adaptations and modern dance. Drawing its performers, employees, and spectators from around the globe, the eclectic nature of the festival makes it the most distinctive of the six festivals that consume the capital of Scotland throughout the month of August. The other festivals, the Military Tattoo, the Jazz and Blues Festival, and the International Theatre Festival provide a more select and thus smaller number of offerings for the mix of foreign and local spectators.
The spontaneity and asceticism of the first Fringe Festival has faded, clearly demonstrating that in the last fifty years the Festival has in part turned into the very thing against which the original companies fought. Three of the largest Fringe venues, The Gilded Balloon, The Observer Assembly Rooms, and The Pleasance, form a virtual triumvirate and have the money and commercial puissance to overpower the other 163 smaller venues. Stand-up comedians, ranging from amateur to professional status, have also become the most visible and ostensibly the most popular fare of the festival, pulling audiences away from the "legitimate" theatre productions. However, the Fringe Festival could hardly have achieved its international status without becoming a more established commercial entity, and the audiences who come to Edinburgh to see comedians Greg Proops at the Assembly Rooms or Rich Hall at the Pleasance inevitably find their way into the smaller venues. One of the most popular productions at the festival for the past few years, the Star Wars Trilogy in 30 Minutes, has, in fact, been performed at one of the smallest venues. The commercialism of the larger theatres has aided the success of the more numerous smaller spaces and their amateur productions, and most venues are still put together the week prior to the Fringe only to be dismantled within day's of the festival's end. The performance spaces are as ephemeral as the artistic events they house.
The striking number of comedians present at the 1999 Fringe Festival, however, could not completely overshadow the innovative amateur productions that have continued to form the base of the Festival and ensure its vitality. The Scotsman's "Fringe Firsts," the paper's weekly awards for new works, went to a melange of productions that had little to do with stand-up comedy. Recipients of the prestigious award included an American production of Nixon's Nixon at the Assembly Rooms under the direction of Charles Towers Watergate, as well as one of the festival's twenty-three Shakespeare adaptations, William Shakespeare's Othello--a Play in Black and White. Conceived and directed by Roysten [End Page 278] Abel and performed by the United Players Guild, India at Augustine's, the adaptation ingeniously uses the convention of metatheatre to parallel the racial divisions between the characters of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago and the multi-racial company who have been cast in the respective roles. Fringe Firsts also went to the Assembly Rooms' production of Patrice Naiambana's one-person script about post-colonial Africa, The Man Who Committed Thought, and to a piece from New Zealand about a businessman shot by racists, Krishnan's Dairy, written by Jacob Rajan and performed at the Traverse Theatre.
The Traverse Theatre, one of the oldest Fringe venues, also served as the location for the Lyric Theatre Belfast's production of Northern Irish playwright Marie Jones's new play, Stones in His Pocket, which then transferred to the Tricycle Theatre, London. Set in the west of Southern...