Just what is the "Edinburgh Festival"?

No, that isn't as silly a question as it may at first look. What is commonly seen as the singular 'Festival' is in reality a many many-headed monster, with the six main events being the original Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the Edinburgh Fringe, the Military Tattoo, a Jazz Festival, Film Festival and Book Festival. Held over about four weeks in late summer, the collective annual events spill out into every major and not so major theatre and concert space - including pubs, restaurants and plots of grass - in the city.

The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947 as a post-war initiative to bring Europe back together after the devastation of World War Two. Several distinguished musicians from countries across Europe were invited to perform and, realising there'd be a readymade audience, several theatre companies arrived behind them to set up where they could. A critic christened this "the fringe of official festival drama" and from that the Edinburgh Fringe was born.

Now in and of itself the world's largest arts festival, the Fringe is by far the most popular component of the monolith, as well as being an important launching pad for new talent. This year, the 57th annual Fringe involves nearly 13,000 performers giving over 21,500 performances of more than 1,500 shows. A third of these are world premieres and countless more are European or British premieres. Theatre, including musicals, comprises 41% of the entire programme, making it the most popular art form of all.

This year's theatrical highlights at the Fringe include: The Straits, the long-awaited second play by Gagarin Way author Gregory Burke; 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; and new shows from David Harrower, Grid Iron, Derevo, The Riot Group and others.

Across town, at the Edinburgh International Festival, parent to the Fringe, there's 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 the legendary Peter Stein.

So, with so much going on, how on earth can a person tame the Edinburgh beast? Herewith, our top tips for surviving the festival.

Planning, planning, planning....

Arm yourself with the free Fringe Programme before you get to Edinburgh. You can pick one up at a number of London venues, or phone for a copy on 0907 159 2003 (calls cost approximately £2.50). Of course, at a daunting 208 pages of densely packed and painstakingly categorised and cross-referenced information, you may not be able to make any sense of the publication at first. But, like a really fine wine, while it tastes good the moment you sip it, it only reveals its darker mysteries as you get further down the bottle. Bear in mind, however, that the programme is liable to many changes post-publication so don't rely on it authoritatively to timetable your visit.

How to choose a show

Beware the curse of the critics. Come festival time, there seem to be nearly as many people who call themselves critics as performers. With the avalanche of newsprint expended on covering the festival and few shows actually worth covering, critics are only human, and tend to overhype the merely mediocre. There are also simply too many of them - both shows and critics - and it becomes difficult to separate the wood from the trees, which have all been pulped anyway in this futile attempt to lead through the forest that has been destroyed to make sense of it all. You'll find the most comprehensive Edinburgh Festival coverage in the Edinburgh morning paper, The Scotsman, which devotes a daily supplement to it and runs an all-singing, all-dancing festivals website. Otherwise, stick to one or two other reliable critical sources, and ignore the rest.

Which is the fairest of them all?

Use the updated Daily Diary for precision planning. Published each day and distributed all over town, this helpfully orders the shows by timeband rather than name of the presenting company or title of the act (as in the Fringe Programme) to let you know what's playing on an hour-by-hour basis.

Many of the larger individual venues also publish their own separate brochures that you can pick up at each one. Virtually compulsory are the two brochures that cover four of the biggest venues - the Assembly Rooms and the Pleasance, published together, and separately but jointly, the Smirnoff Underbelly (a relatively new venue on a fast track to becoming a major player) and the Gilded Balloon (now staging most of its offerings at Teviot Row House after last year's devastating fire - See News, 13 Jan 2003). And whether you get a glance at its programme or not, if you're a serious theatregoer in search of new plays, it's always worth heading first for the Traverse Theatre, a year-round new writing venue that regularly transfers to the Royal Court and Bush in London.

But do remember to venture further afield too. There's more to Edinburgh than the Pleasance, though its pleasant courtyard setting, against the backdrop of Salisbury Cragg, is the nicest festival hangout in good weather.

Pick up the complimentary and complementary brochures to the other festivals, too, all of which are far easier to get your head around than the Fringe. If nothing else, they'll provide you with an alternative should you slip into arts overload.

Spend Spend Spend

The cost of attending myriad shows can add up, but you don't have to buy tickets to see everything - the central section of the Royal Mile around the Fringe Office and Parliament Square becomes a huge street theatre on a daily basis. Buskers, acrobats, fire-eaters and other entertainers make their appearance - alongside actors from Fringe shows dressed up in costume promoting their shows and often performing 'trailers' to help you decide what to plump for. In addition, there are around a hundred shows in the programme that are completely free, some for one-off performances and others for the full duration.

The biggest 'freebie' is the Royal Bank Fringe Sunday, which takes place on the Meadows, just south of the city centre on 10 August. It's a huge garden party attracting crowds of around 150,000. It includes free performances and extracts from Fringe shows with art displays and crafts stalls, music and children's activities.

To book or not to book

Do book ahead - but don't overbook. If there's something you're particularly determined to see, don't delay, book today. The most popular fringe shows, especially comedy, sell out in advance, so it's worth securing your seats for them. But don't book too many shows in advance - you'll want to retain some flexibility in your schedule to slot in late discoveries or recommendations you hear on the street. Most shows don't come close to selling out so you can simply purchase tickets on the door. Even the more popular shows only fill up a day (or sometimes two, seldom three) in advance, so you can leave it fairly late to commit.

Finally....

Enjoy it. Edinburgh is neither a race nor an endurance test. It's a pleasure, not a penance. And don't fret too much if you miss something that sounded good - if it's really up to scratch, chances are it'll reappear, either in London, on tour or again at Edinburgh next year.


The 2003 Edinburgh Fringe runs 3 to 25 August and is joined by the Edinburgh International Festival from 10 to 23 August. For overviews on theatre highlights from both, see related stories in the Whatsonstage.com News section. And for all the very latest festival news, reviews and listings, check out the detailed reporting from our partners at The Scotsman at www.edinburgh-festivals.com.