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Michael Coveney: Tickets to ride, Edinburgh looms

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You look at all those rows of empty seats at the Olympics and you think, well, they did ask for it. The government told us to stay at home or go away. Train companies were telling us to find other ways of getting about -- hot air balloon or pogo sticks, anyone?

And buying tickets is so damned complicated - my wife and I are in the middle of a joint nervous breakdown trying to find on-line tickets for the aquatic centre later this month - and you can't just turn up and go in, so why bother?

The one good thing is that London, except at certain crush and crash barrier moments, has become very easy and rather pleasant to move around in.

When I return from Edinburgh next week, I intend to stay put and enjoy the greatest city in the world for the whole of August. I can even go to the theatre in an atmosphere of peace and quiet because no-one else is. Theatre owners gave the distinct impression earlier this year that they would be shutting up shop for the duration. And they're not.

But the result is confusion. The hit shows such as War Horse and One Man, Two Govnors are doing just fine. But producer Nica Burns said the other day that her six theatres are struggling like they've never struggled before.

And that sort of declaration also puts people off: who in their right mind wants to go and see a flop, or sit in an empty house? Well, I don't mind. I'm almost looking forward to going to see Jenny Seagrove in a completely unknown Noel Coward play, Volcano, in one of Nica's theatres quite soon. Who knows, it might erupt into a lava-minute sensation.

I'm quite happy sitting at my desk with the Olympics bubbling away in a corner on my television: early morning rowing has a wonderful soothing effect on the psyche, I find, and the decorous inertia of archery at Lord's has become almost a soporific fetish.

Mind you, my equilibrium has been severely tested by the sight of the Dutch women's hockey team in full cry, a team of blonde, lithe goddesses with swishing pony-tails and uniformly high cheek-bones. What with the beach volleyball and the rippling musculature of the high divers, the Olympics is proving a feast of sexily athletic diversion.

A different kind of assault course looms in Auld Reekie, where friends have warned me to pack thermals and wellies for the Edinburgh Festival this year, though I won't be staying long enough to sample the delights of the international programme.

That starts on Thursday week with a performance of Delius's magnificent A Mass of Life, and the theatre programme includes a Polish Macbeth (there's an unpolished Polish Macbeth on the fringe, too, performed in the Old College Quad of Edinburgh University), a Swiss "language laboratory" production of My Fair Lady by the brilliant Christoph Marthaler, Euripides in Japanese, Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil from Paris and a Romanian take on Gulliver's Travels.

And that really is just for starters. The great tragedy of Edinburgh is twofold: the media concentrate solely on the fringe. And the fringe has become totally detached from the scandalously pooh-poohed international festival.

I've now read comedian Stewart Lee's inchoate rant in the Guardian about the corruption of the fringe three times and am none the wiser. He accuses the Assembly Rooms of ripping off perfomers, the Underbelly of being an Etonian cabal, the media of laziness and the true spirit of the fringe and all good theatre being represented by some bloke vomiting mayonnaise in a circle of clouds.

How narrow his frame of reference, how self-serving his rhetoric, how trivial his bombast, even if he does reserve meagre plaudits for Complicite, Berkoff, the late Bill Hicks and Daniel Kitson, all brilliant, all the proper stuff of any international festival, benchmarks for the fringe.

I've marked my card and hope for the best. But one word of warning, touched on by Lee in his article, though incomprehensibly. The Assembly, one of the "big four" fringe producing companies, is now based in George Square.

Meanwhile, the Assembly Rooms in George Street, former home of Assembly, has re-opened as the Assembly Rooms, an entirely different producing operation. That's where the National Theatre of Scotland are performing two pieces, and that's where I shall begin my abbreviated festival adventure this year on Friday afternoon.


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