In Edinburgh festivals are extraordinary events for those of us who are passionate about the arts. So it was like a dream to be invited to the Edinburgh International Festival.
As these things go, time was of the essence, since the warning was days rather than weeks ahead of the time, and the days left were spent obtaining a UK visa without any thought of what I was going to do once I got there.
I have never been to Edinburgh and my most recent festival was a month ago in Grahamstown, which is planned meticulously, and where knowing most of the artists performing already makes your choices easier. You’re also an accredited journalist, so things are made as easy as possible even though the work is sometimes backbreaking because of the number of shows to see and write about.
Edinburgh, though, is something else. It took me a few days just to wrap my head around the extent and expanse of this arts conglomerate.
You can’t, for example, page through one book, see what’s available, go to one box office and buy the tickets.
The festival consists of many different festivals, including the international (main), the fringe (which is made up of different companies like The Assembly, which is guesting the South African contingent who are flying the South African/UK season banner and who are my hosts), a book fair, which is something that could stand on its own… and I’m missing a few, but this is what I’m dealing with.
Forget that feeling that many festinos will be familiar with that you might be missing something fantastic. Because you will. But you keep your ear to the ground and try to find anyone who can help.
My plan was to see some of the South African productions, but also get a feel of what is happening internationally, which will give me an idea of where we fit into the picture.
Finding my way through the programme without time on my side, I tapped into newspapers and what they were recommending, but also listened when anyone spoke about shows.
Sitting in a theatre the other day with a ticket supplied by the press office, I heard two Scottish journalists chatting about what they had seen over the past few days. Confessing to eavesdropping, I asked about a show that they both agreed they could see over and over again.
It turned out to be a children’s production called Huff, only 20 minutes long and, said the woman selling tickets, three go in at a time because there are only three little pigs. So I’ll be there and will report.
The other production they suggested was Exhibit B, which elicited the cheesiest smile from moi because it’s our own.
Many might have seen the magnificent Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A a few years ago in Grahamstown, and with a few adjustments and additions to a show styled like a museum of curiosities in a way that turns the tables and forces those visiting to engage with the exhibits, it hasn’t lost any of its potency.
If anything, with the world spinning out of control, the horror is heightened. But it is the artistry, the voice and the way this par- ticular story unfolds that makes it stand out on this world stage.
Ubu and the Truth Commission, which also played in Grahamstown earlier and rolls into town just in time for the final weekend of the festival at the end of the month, will have a similar impact.
The South African presence at this festival is hugely comforting and joyous as you wander the streets of Edinburgh.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo are popping up all over the place, including in a main festival production titled Inala with choreographer and artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company, Mark Baldwin, uniting Zulu traditions of song and dance with classical ballet, contemporary dance and music.
I wish this audience could have had the joy of experiencing our amazing contemporary dancers like Dada Masilo or Gregory Maqoma, though.
But there’s more, and it is a wonderful platform for our artists to test their creativity on a world stage and to see if they’re pushing those barriers enough.
It’s an exciting time, with the South African/UK season adding to the richness of the platform.
Then pop into the book fair and two young writers, Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters) and CA Davis (The Blacks of Cape Town) are sitting down in a packed hall to speak about their work (see report below) and there’s a strong South African presence with Damon Galgut, Mark Gevisser and Niq Mhlongo all stepping on to the stage later during this festival month.
So while I do feel like a foreigner at the festival because of the challenge of trying to navigate this artistic behemoth, it is a joyous thing that we are part of this magnificent event that celebrates the luminous and explorative qualities of the arts.