The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, with nearly 3,500 shows. This year, Playbill is in Edinburgh for the entire month in August for the festival and we’re taking you with us. Follow along as we cover every single aspect of the Fringe, aka our real-life Brigadoon!
Michael Braithwaite used to be a puppeteer on the Harry Potter films. In the late ’90s, early 2000s, he was a creative director at Jim Henson's Creature Shop and he was asked to work on the first two films in the wizarding franchise. Potter-heads might remember Braithwaite’s work—he was one of the puppeteers in the devil’s snare scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a monstruous vine plant which he also helped build. “I got lost in that one day for half an hour,” he recalls. “I was so keen to stay out of the camera shot, so I stayed down and stayed quiet until I finally got a cramp and came out and found the studio deserted. Somebody had called lunch, and I hadn't heard.”
And now Braithwaite is the Creative Director of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Edinburgh is also the city where J.K. Rowling first wrote Harry Potter, so the world of witchcraft and wizardry is all over the city. You can say it’s been a full-circle moment for Braithwaite. “I'm still creating magic in the same place,” he remarks.
Indeed, watching the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, performed in front of the imposing Edinburgh Castle, can be described as magic. The Tattoo is one of the biggest events annually in Edinburgh, next to the Fringe Festival and the International Festival. It was first performed in 1949, shortly after the creation of those two aforementioned festivals.
The Tattoo is also held throughout the month of August (this year through August 26). It is a dazzling display of military marching bands from around the world—where around 800 performers put on a show for an audience of around 9,000. You can see a sizzle reel of the Tattoo in the video above.
Different marching bands, ranging from 40 to 120, are invited every year to join the Tattoo, ensuring it’s a different show from year to year. And the bands perform to three sides of the audience, meaning there’s not a bad seat in the house.
This is only Braithwaite’s second year directing a festival—he was first hired for the job in 2019. Obviously there was no Tattoo in 2020 or 2021. Coming from the world of live entertainment and puppetry, Braithwaite had a different background from previous Tattoo directors. Past directors had a military background; Braithwaite is the first civilian to direct the Tattoo. He said that he was head-hunted for the job out of the blue (he’s from New Zealand).
“The brief was very simple, which was to take the Tattoo the next level creatively with the use of enhanced staging and production techniques,” explains Braithwaite. “The board were very keen that show evolved for the modern era and becomes more contemporary and relevant to our audiences.” So, the Tattoo may not be theatre in the traditional sense, but Braithwaite was hired to make it more theatrical and dramatic. Aside from the traditional fireworks display over Edinburgh castle, the show itself has upped its production value. There are now moving projections on Edinburgh Castle, pyrotechnics, glow-in-the-dark costuming, and fire.
Even the military bands have gotten the memo. This year, the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force Steel Orchestra included showgirls in elaborate headdresses and fire eaters performing around their marching band. For Braithwaite, such non-traditional displays are a way of making the show appeal to modern audiences and to a more diverse audience. The Tattoo is seen by people from around the world, and its performers also span the four corners of the globe.
“It's military, there's precision, but it also embraces world, culture and heritage, and of course, our own Celtic tradition has been based on Scotland,” he explains. “What we've been very interested in doing over the last couple of years, since I've been directing, is to find the military traditions of each country, rather than just replications of a standard British marching band.”
Now, you may be thinking, how is there that much space in front of Edinburgh Castle for a 9,000-seat stadium? The answer is that the Tattoo is performed in a giant esplanade in front of the castle (which traditionally did hold military processions, as well as mass executions during the Middle Ages). But every year in early May, the Tattoo constructs a massive stadium that requires 800 tons of steel and 35 miles of cable (it’s all stored in a warehouse in Leith during the off season). The stadium also has two working elevators. It’s so massive that it’s surprising that it’s created in just two months every year, and then quickly disassembled after.
As Braithwaite notes, “As a logistical exercise, it is up there with the best of them. And I'm very glad I don't have to do it.”
The logistics don’t end there. When the bands arrive in Scotland, they only have six days of rehearsal before they perform in front of an audience. It’s a team of 1,500 backstage putting the show together and it’s all done so seamlessly that the audience only have to sit back and enjoy the sheer drama of 100-plus bagpipes playing in unison, a drill team executing riffle spins and marches with absolute precision, or a fire eater blowing fire into the air while it’s raining.
To Braithwaite, working with the different bands to figure out how to best present their set is his favorite part of the gig: “Collaboration in the creative process is something that I feel very passionate about. And that, I think, is one of the reasons we create a show that is unlike any you can see elsewhere in the world.”
See images of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo's 2023 show below.