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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Arts: Festival fever

Picking shows to see at the Edinburgh Festival can be a struggle. As if the unpredictable Scottish weather was not enough for visitors to contend with, relentless hyperbole buffets them from every direction the moment they step off the bus. “A compelling comic monster!” “Perfectly mastered yet volcanic energy.” “Sickeningly accomplished.” A cursory look at the contents of this year’s programme and the multiple-ponied Stuart Baggs from The Apprentice suddenly appears a master of restraint.

If even half the shows therein turn out to be the coruscating works of genius the performers so boldly proclaim, one might expect the unprecedented levels of foot-stomping laughter and riotous applause to cause Scotland’s capital to break off the coast and drift down the North Sea (thus rendering a long-concealed Glaswegian plot redundant).

Of course, the show selection task is usually further complicated by having to cater for tastes beyond your own. Anyone who has had the dubious honour of picking a show for a group of friends or — even worse — a group of work colleagues, soon makes the unhappy discovery that not everyone is fortunate enough to possess their own fine powers of discrimination. As the saying goes, one person’s idea of comedy is another person’s Russell Howard. Thus, it is with a degree of reticence that I offer the following recommendations.

It’s difficult to ignore the big names this year: John Malkovich directing Julian Sands in A Celebration of Harold Pinter, and Steven Berkoff’s take on Sophocles’ Oedipus. There is also, however, emerging young talent on offer. The Analogue theatre company — a Fringe First Winner in 2007 with Mile End — returns with its latest play 2401 Objects, inspired by an important neuroscientific case study, and promising to tell a ‘remarkable story of a man who could no longer remember, but who has proven impossible to forget’.

The Edinburgh International Festival also celebrates Asian cultures this year, with the line-up including One Thousand and One Nights, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (based on Haruki Murakami’s novel), and Shakespeare’s The Tempest transplanted to fifth century Korea.

Over the past six festivals, two comedians have enticed more laughs from me than the rest combined. One of them is Daniel Kitson, conspicuously absent from this year’s line-up. The other is Stewart Lee. The second series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle drew heavily from his 2010 Edinburgh show, and this year’s show is likely to preview material for the third series. Lee’s shows normally sell out fast, so book early.

Fans of Peep Show and Flight of the Conchords may wish to check out Isy Suttie (Dobby) and Kristen Schall (Mel), while admirers of Andy Kaufman’s brand of ‘anti-humour’ should look up Neil Hamburger and Edward Aczel.

While the International Festival covers the classical side of things, The National (23 August) are the clear standout from what looks like a rather insipid rock line-up (unless you happen to take a keen interest in the trajectory of Charlie Simpson’s post-Busted career…).

If melodic punk cabaret is high on your list of favourite musical genres, then Amanda Palmer (25 August) returns after popular shows at previous festivals. If you would prefer to wallow in mid-90s Britpop nostalgia, then Cast will be rolling back the years on 26 August.

Unlike most of the other August festivals in Edinburgh, the Book Festival enjoys a single location — the attractive and intimate setting of Charlotte Square Gardens — thus avoiding a mad taxi dash across town between events. This year’s line-up features a parade of Booker winners, AS Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, Ben Okri and Michael Ondaatje, along with an impressive array of non-fiction authors, including Niall Ferguson, Simon Blackburn and the ubiquitous AC Grayling.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing Will Self’s views on WG Sebald (28 August). This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of the German writer whose melding of memoir and fiction continues to exert a powerful influence on many authors, including Self. Other talks to watch out for are those by Jennifer Egan (15 August), author of Pulitzer prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, and poet Paul Muldoon (20 August), who last year proved an affable and engaging speaker.

Finally, if you would like to support a fellow actuary, then George Lewkowicz, a capital modelling contractor for Tea Fuelled Ltd, will be performing as Superbard, a storyteller from the future, mixing self-composed music and video projections to tell darkly comic, whimsical tales. George first appeared in The Actuary back in 2008 when he made his Edinburgh Festival debut, and we wish him well with this year’s show.