The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world's largest arts festival, gets underway in the Scottish capital this weekend. The 57th annual event opens this Sunday 3 August 2003 and continues until 25 August, during which time some 21,594 performances of 1,541 different shows be presented, involving 12,940 performers from 668 companies hailing from around the world.

Theatrically, other highlights of the 2003 programme will include: The Straits, the long-awaited second play by Gregory Burke, author of 2001's multi-award winning Gagarin Way; a revival of Bob Kingdom's Dylan Thomas - Return Journey, directed by Sir Anthony Hopkins on the 50th anniversary of the Welsh poet's death; Mental, a new play about insanity and genius, starring comedienne Jo Brand; the premiere of Nine Parts of Desire, about oppressed women and exiles, by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo; an all-star revival of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men; a celebrity gala performance of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; and new shows from David Harrower, Grid Iron, Derevo, The Riot Group and others.

In addition to the breadth of programming, the 2003 Fringe is significant for the use of 70 brand-new venues as well as the resurgence of one of its most famous, The Gilded Balloon. Legendary for its comedy premieres at the festival, the Galloon was destroyed, along with ten other buildings, during a fire that burned for three days in December 2002. At this year's event, the venue will present most of its offerings at Teviot Row House.

More than half a million people plan their August holidays each year around a trip to Edinburgh. Though commonly seen as one single festival, the event is in reality several different festivals - the main ones being the original Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Military Tattoo, the Jazz Festival, the Film Festival and the Book Festival - of which the Fringe is, by far, the largest.

The Edinburgh International Festival, parent to the Fringe, runs this year from 10 to 23 August. It includes new work from playwright David Greig and controversial Spanish director Calixton Bieto as well as a high-profile production of Chekhov's The Seagull, starring Fiona Shaw and Iain Glen and directed by Peter Stein (See News, 14 Apr 2003).

- by Terri Paddock