August 16, 2013 8:41 pm

Heavy metal Chinese Shakespeare puts smile on Edinburgh’s face

In spite of recession and rise of rival events, festival finances are in rude health
Box office for edinburgh festival©Sophie Gerrard

Box office for edinburgh festival

It says something about the cosmopolitan flavour of Edinburgh in August that a heavy metal performance of Shakespeare in Mandarin Chinese looks likely to sell out a 3,000-seat theatre.

Next week’s performances of The Tragedy of Coriolanus by Beijing People’s Art Theatre is just one small part of a vast cultural wave that washes over the Scottish capital each summer.

And for all the perennial grumbles of some locals about the crowded streets, and a few obligatory squabbles, festival finances appear in rude health despite global economic troubles and the rise of rival events across the UK and around the world.

Despite fewer big-audience events than last year, the highbrow Edinburgh International Festival, which is hosting Coriolanus, expects to attract audiences of more than 100,000 people – or 350,000 if an outdoor fireworks show is included.

The more anarchic Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s biggest arts festival – groups more than 24,000 artists at 273 venues who will put on 2,871 shows: 6.5 per cent more than last year.

Fringe organisers will not reveal how many tickets have been sold until after it closes, but local media say big venues have seen better numbers than in 2012, when the London Olympics diverted audiences.

This year’s festivals come amid increasingly heated discussion about the economic value of cultural activities during the UK’s fiscal squeeze – a debate that has thrown into sharp relief the differences of political approach between the coalition government in London and Scotland’s nationalist administration.

Maria Miller, UK culture secretary, called in April for a reframing of arguments on arts funding, saying that “in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact”.

But Ms Miller’s approach was sharply rejected in June by her Scottish counterpart, Fiona Hyslop, who declared Scotland’s government believed in supporting the arts because “culture and heritage have a value in and of themselves” – and saw economic value as just a “secondary benefit”.

Ms Hyslop’s stand is welcome to many involved at Edinburgh’s festivals, which enjoy strong public sector support – in forms ranging from funding about half of the International Festival’s £9.5m budget to venue licensing and road closures for Fringe and related events.

But the festivals are also keen to demonstrate that they provide cultural and economic value. An impact survey in 2010, which included smaller events at other times of year, found they generated £261m in new output for Scotland – up from £184m in 2005.

And an independent survey of audiences at the 2012 festivals, released this week, found not only that 95 per cent were satisfied with what was on offer, but that 64 per cent agreed they had been made more likely to take greater risks in the kinds of events they would go to see in the future.

Other benefits are harder to measure. Some credit the festivals with boosting Edinburgh’s international brand, helping it to weather the economic downturn better than many UK cities.

The festivals undoubtedly enliven a city that can sometimes seem stern and self-satisfied. A visitor to its historic Royal Mile this week would find street performance delights ranging from African drummers to a Jane Austen-inspired comedy by way of a man dressed up as an alien and a down-and-out thumbing a penny whistle.

Nearby, the grand Signet Library, home to the association of Scottish lawyers, has been transformed into a pop-up champagne café bar.

Sara Hicks of Vranken-Pommery Monopole says when that the venue was first used in 2011, some lawyers were “quite snippy about us being here”. “Now they love it,” she says.

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