Festival shows are too English-language dominated, says venue chief

The Herald / Phil Miller

The owner and director of one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s biggest venues has lamented the domination of the English language at the festival.

Robert McDowell, who with his family bought the former Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies building in 2011, establishing the 650-room academic building as a major arts venue and now key Fringe site, said that the festival has too many shows, including stand up comedy, staged in English.

He says the lack of foreign language shows is bad for the festival’s vaunted internationalism.

Mr McDowell, who has staged shows at the Fringe since 1980, said: “You could say the festival has become too English language based.

“We have had loads of foreign language stuff, but in recent decades we have become more and more English language, and I think that is bad for our internationalism.

“It is not even suited to the people who live here, we have a very polyglot Edinburgh population and audience.

“I have seen Shakespeare done in about 20 different languages.

“Even when you don’t know the language, if it is performed interestingly, it can be fabulous.

“But we are under a lot of economic pressure, and it is a pressure that does not allow for a lot of risk-taking or enough minority type interest, there is too much focus on entertainment value.

“Our approach is that we choose what we think is good, and hope that it is entertaining.”

This year the Fringe has 947 shows that are not “language specific”, or suitable for non-English speakers, out of 3269, but the Fringe does not keep statistics on how many shows are in English or other languages.

At the International Festival two operas are to be sung in Italian, and one in German. In its theatre programme, three Shakespeare plays will be performed in German, Russian and French.

Mr McDowell added: “The main reason why Richard Demarco and I resent, as others do, the huge growth in comedy, stand up comedy, is not because we don’t like stand up comedy, but that it is too English, it is too Anglo-Saxon, and perhaps another reason is that it is too repetitive as well.”

Summerhall itself this year is staging a new play in Lithuanian, Under Ice, written by Art?ras Areima based on the work by seminal German playwright Falk Richter.

Mr McDowell said that for the Fringe’s official 70th anniversary next year, he would back the idea of setting up a museum to record the history of both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe, which were both founded in 1947.

“I think it is long overdue, and other places that would have anything comparable to this event would have some sort of museum,” he said.

“We have enough material to fill a small museum and you only have to announce something like that and the public would make massive contributions.”