Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome: Fergus Linehan on the EIF's glut of cabaret

Simon Thompson talks to the artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival, ahead of it opening this week

Fergus Linehan, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival
Fergus Linehan, artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival
© Colin Hattersley

Edinburgh always feels like a cabaret in August. Wander down the Royal Mile for five minutes and you’ll see all manner of weird and wonderful stuff that you’d normally expect to find in the smoky confines of a darkened nightclub. There has been a resurgence in the official artform in recent years, however, with favourites like George Square’s Spiegeltent featuring acts like La Clique, and recently Underbelly’s Circus Hub has done a huge amount to melt the boundaries between cabaret, circus and acrobatics, almost inventing a whole new art form in the process.

This year, however, even the International Festival has got in on the act, and they’ve gone in big, staging cabaret across its output with some big names. At the morning recitals at the Queen’s Hall, baritone Simon Keenlyside sings Broadway songs, while in the theatre James Thierrée’s The Toad Knew spectacularly brings together dancers, acrobats and high-wire artists. Even the venerable Usher Hall series is getting involved with not one, but two nights of musical evenings devoted to an exploration of the cabaret of the Weimar Republic. I asked Fergus Linehan, now into his second festival as the EIF’s director, what led him to join in the cabaret trend.

' Beyond the Fringe began in the International Festival, after all, not the Fringe.'

"That kind of art form actually has great provenance in the festival, back to the time when there was always a late-night cabaret. People like Cleo Laine, for example, would be performing in plays and then go on to do a late-night cabaret performance afterwards, and if you go back further then people like Marlene Dietrich and Burt Bacharach came and performed. Beyond the Fringe began in the International Festival, after all, not the Fringe. I’ve always been interested in that world, though."

Alan Cummings Sings Sappy Songs
Alan Cumming will perform his cabaret show at the International Festival
© Steve Vaccariello

That’s hardly surprising. Linehan grew up in the world of the theatre in Ireland: his mother was an actress and his father was a writer. He began his career producing shows in Dublin and his first major festival job was heading up the Dublin Theatre Festival. He was also artistic director of the Sydney Festival and, just before getting the Edinburgh job, was Head of Music at the Sydney Opera House.

He’s a warm and engaging personality, and his approach to the festival exudes an openness that has, perhaps, been lacking in some of his predecessors. After all, one of the most striking moves of his first year was to launch a whole new branch focusing on contemporary music, something which proved so successful that it has been expanded further this year, and I suspect it will soon become one of those elements that you can’t really imagine the EIF without.

You sense that openness when he talks about the cabaret strand, but not just that: "I grew up in the musical theatre and I’d love us to do a big piece of musical theatre at some point", he adds. "The Festival is about any of the performing arts that takes itself seriously, or has a degree of artistic ambition about it, and cabaret can be one of those."

One of the other major strands of this year’s programme is centred on the Shakespeare anniversary, but in a pretty unique way. The Schaubühne Berlin are staging Richard III in German, Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin theatre are doing Measure for Measure in Russian, and Shake reimagines Twelfth Night in French as a 1970s seaside holiday. "We’re an international festival, so we’re looking at three very international approaches to Shakespeare from different parts of the world. Thomas Ostermeier‘s Richard III is absolutely superlative and Shake is gloriously effervescent. Cheek by Jowl have never been to the EIF before, and their Measure for Measure is very pointedly about Russia at the moment. In Shakespeare’s play the government uses antiquated laws about morality and plays upon public fears to be able to exert control, and that’s an age-old tool of despotic regimes that is alive and well today in many places."

Equally internationally, the American Rep are bringing Tennessee Williams‘ masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie directed by John Tiffany. "That was partly about getting John back to the festival, but also about getting an American company to do an American classic. It’s also an exquisite production, and it’s going really well in rehearsal, actually. I think that one might be kind of special."

'I'd love to have a big piece of musical theatre at the EIF.'

One of the hottest tickets of this year’s EIF has been Alan Cumming‘s late night sessions of Sappy Songs, where the well-loved Scottish comedian sings songs and tells tales, just like any cabaret artiste would. "I really felt that we needed to have a performance that would run throughout the festival", Linehan says, "and Alan is such a multi-faceted and talented performer that it worked really well. When you’re dealing with a multi-genre arts festival, the intersection of the genres is always interesting, and cabaret is very much an intersection between theatre, music, spoken word and comedy."

That intersection is something that Linehan seems to have been exploring more deeply in both his EIF programmes so far, but he’s not so sure that it’s conscious. "It just naturally comes up. We are a festival, after all, and you need to have good festive moments. Nothing creates that atmosphere better than really great cabaret and comedy within the programme."

Cabaret and comedy? Well, some of the Edinburgh Festivals have had those for decades, but with even the venerable EIF getting in on that action, the Fringe had better watch out.

The 2016 Edinburgh International Festival runs from Friday 5th to Monday 29th August. Tickets are currently on sale. For full details and for tickets go to

For our coverage of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe, head to our Edinburgh festival page