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).
As the wait continues for more UK gigs by Flight of the Conchords, why not console yourself with the next best thing: a standup show by the band's manager, Murray? Darby's hyperactive shtick brings to mind a 3D Loony Toon with a Kiwi accent. Udderbelly's Pasture (08445 458 252), 6-15 August.
Last year at Edinburgh, standup's eminence slightly grise was honing material for his TV vehicle. Now he unleashes an all-new show for the live stage. Its title, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, suggests Lee hasn't mellowed. The Stand (0131-558 7272), 7-30 August (except 17).
Garofalo is best known in the UK for her roles in The Larry Sanders Show and 24, but she was once an acclaimed standup; this is her Fringe debut. Gilded Balloon (0131-622 6552), 6-15 August.
Lounge singer, sexual provocateur, sock puppeteer, stage anarchist: there's no one quite like Hans Teeuwen. If getting a gig in a big purple cow counts as a move up, well, it's not before time for this extraordinary, discomfiting Dutch stand-up. Udderbelly's Pasture (08445 458252), 13, 15, 26-28 August.
Noble returns with another genre-busting, mind-boggling concoction: a multimedia suicide note exploring failure and the desire for a legacy. Critics have loved it. Assembly Rooms (0131-623 3030), 25-30 August.
An out-of-nowhere winner of the Perrier award in 2005, for her mid-afternoon performances in an obscure boozer at the foot of Arthur's Seat, Solon returns with a multi-character comedy hour in the manner of her hit Radio 4 sketch show, Talking and Not Talking. Assembly Rooms (0131-623 3030), 6-30 August.
Even in a market stuffed with legendary bands reforming, the reappearance of Howard Devoto's celebrated late-1970s band seems special: their prog-rock-played-with-punk-energy hasn't dated, and the band seem to have survived the hiatus with all their weirdness and edge intact. HMV Picture House (0844 847 1740), 30 August.
As comebacks go, the former Orange Juice frontman's has been spectacular: it's not just his recovery from a cerebral haemorrhage that makes it so, but the brilliance and charm of his live shows, celebrating his 50th birthday. Special guests promised. Assembly @ Assembly Hall (0131-623 3030), 20-22 August.
The music at the Fringe tends towards older artists and classic rock, which makes Enter Shikari's appearance all the more striking: whether you love or detest their blend of screamy punk rock and trance techno, there's nothing else like it in the album charts. HMV Picture House (0844 499 9990), 27 August.
As a euphoric pop counterpoint to some of the festival's more worthy musicians, Dumfries-based producer Calvin Harris's electronic retooling of disco seems perfectly fit for purpose.
HMV Picture House (0844 847 1740), 10 August.
Opera and classical
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse
Featuring puppets and animations as well as opera singers, William Kentridge's staging of Monteverdi's masterpiece should be the operatic highlight of the festival. King's Theatre (0131-473 2000), 23, 25, 26 August.
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Switzerland's leading orchestra stands out among the lacklustre lineup of visitors. Conducted by David Zinman, they end their concert with Mahler's Fourth Symphony. Dawn Upshaw is the soprano in the finale. Usher Hall (0131-473 2000), 27 August.
Pogorelic´ is one of the most gifted pianists of our time, but his previous performances were too often eccentric affairs; it will be fascinating to see if age has mellowed him. The programme begins with Chopin and ends with Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, a Pogorelic´ speciality. Usher Hall (0131-473 2000), 29 August.
Director Herbert Wernicke died seven years ago, but one of his most celebrated productions arrives courtesy of Stuttgart Opera. Six of Bach's cantatas underpin an extraordinarily detailed depiction of everyday life, involving all 50 members of the Stuttgart chorus. Festival Theatre (0131-473 2000), 4-5 September.
Michael Clark Company
The original dance rebel returns to his roots, choreographing his latest work to 1970s music by David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Clark promises to deliver his unique brand of neoclassical dancing and strident rock edge. Edinburgh Playhouse (0131-473 2000), 28-30 August.
Wit, mystery and beauty are promised in a new three-work programme. The centenary of the Ballets Russes is celebrated with Ian Spink's reinvention of Petrushka; William Forsythe's Workwithinwork gets a rare UK showing; and there's a welcome revival of Ashton's classic Scènes de Ballet. Edinburgh Playhouse (0131-473 2000), 4-5 September.
Royal Ballet of Flanders: The Return of Ulysses
Choreographer Christian Spuck imagines a postmodern comedy for faithful Penelope as she waits for her wandering husband. This version of Ulysses flips between ancient myth and modern Greece, between the music of Purcell and Doris Day; the characters include a tour-guide Athena and a Poseidon in flippers and goggles. Edinburgh Playhouse (0131-473 2000), 21-24 August.
David Hughes: The Red Room
Hughes collaborates with theatre-maker Al Seed to present a new take on Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Combining ballet, hip-hop, modern dance and bharatanatyam (a classical Indian style), Hughes promises a densely physical recreation of Poe's tale of disease, debauchery and madness.
Traverse Theatre (0131-228 1404), 8-16 August.
Eva Hesse: Studiowork
German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse, who died in 1970, produced a large number of small, experimental works in wax, latex, plaster and other materials, many of which have never been shown before. A must-see for sculpture fans. Fruitmarket (0131-225 2383), 5 August to 25 October.
Jane and Louise Wilson
This solo exhibition from two of the most important and innovative artists working in film and video will include rarely seen archive material from the artists' studio, and a new commission. Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh (0131-650 2210), 6 August to 26 September.
The strange, colourful, plank-like objects of California artist John McCracken invade Edinburgh's most beautiful gallery. A one-time minimalist, McCracken is now as much interested in mental as physical space. Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden (0131-248 2971), 6 August to 11 October.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016