Suffer for your art

Edinburgh epics - Don't waste your time on mediocre comedy or a 90-minute play, advises Michael Cove

It depends what you're looking for, but it strikes me that there is no real point in going to a festival unless you do something unusual. You can see an hour of mediocre comedy any time. A 90-minute Traverse Theatre play set in a crofter's cottage or a car park will come to London if it is any good.

So how about an 11-hour monumental epic by the last great poet to write in the French theatre, a medieval love story between a Spanish knight and a grandee's young wife spread across four conti-nents, uniting heaven and earth, the visible and the invisible, before exploding in a burst of total theatre that answers, in the poet's own words, the question of the reciprocal role of sin and grace in the ordering of providence?

No, you won't find Paul Claudel's Le Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper) in the Gilded Balloon or the Smirnoff Underbelly, sandwiched between a one-woman show about Sylvia Plath and 40 minutes of fairly funny navel-gazing by a spotty stand-up. But you will find it in the International Festival. Or, as I call it, the "real festival", with real art for grown- ups. Nothing like Claudel's play has been seen in this country since the heyday of the world theatre season at London's Aldwych Theatre in the 1960s, and I suppose the soundbite Fringe crowd will take a look only when they hear it contains mime, nudity, madness and carnal passion.

There is something gloriously masochistic about locking yourself away with a performance for a whole day. People do it all the time when they go to see Ken Dodd. "Some of those Japanese shows go on for seven hours," Dodd sneered, threateningly, at the audience the last time I saw him. "We can do better than that!" And indeed he can. Few international productions take care of their customers as well as Dodd does. Did you find a will form under your seat when you saw Peter Brook's nine-hour Mahabharata at the festival in 1988? Or a breakfast order form at Scottish Opera's complete Ring cycle last year? You did not. But you saw something you will never forget because you made the effort and invested your life in art in a spirit of communion and fellowship.

Brian McMaster, the director of the International Festival, saw Le Soulier de Satin in Strasburg last year and knew at once that he had to book it: "I found it hugely impressive in all sorts of ways, not least in the sense that, as we sat down for the last stretch, your relationship with each other in the audience had changed."

The production by Olivier Py will be seen for two performances only (16 and 17 August), starting at 1pm in the afternoon, with three intervals including a supper break. Genuine festival freaks can spend 15 August boning up on Claudel at a study day in the Royal Museum, then repair to the Usher Hall for the opening con- cert - which is Arthur Honegger's wonderful, declamatory oratorio about Joan of Arc set to a text by the man himself, Paul Claudel.

The drama programme includes another European masterpiece, Fernando de Rojas's Celes-tina, in a co-production with Birmingham Rep directed by Calixto Bieito. (Bieito is the Catalan "bad boy" who caused the most fearful rumpus with his English National Opera production of Verdi's A Masked Ball, which opened with a line of chaps sitting on toilets with their trousers round their ankles.) Running at well under three hours, however, La Celestina will be a mere bagatelle compared with Le Soulier de Satin. Epic sanity is restored with a monster production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt from Berlin, and a five-and-a-half-hour performance of Morton Feldman's second string quartet on 1 September. There is also "a festival within the festival" of Carl Maria von Weber's music, with concert performances of three of his melody-rich operas taking place over three nights.

Festivals give us the excuse to think big, make leaps and connections. And I am surely not alone in feeling that my own life is measured out not in coffee spoons but in soup ladles: the RSC's great history play cycles; the National's all-day Mysteries; Peter Stein's fantastic Oresteia at an earlier festival, and Peter Hall's in London; the entirety of Proust in a four-hour Glasgow Citizens show insouciantly titled A Waste of Time.

I remain a little disappointed, none the less, that McMaster has managed to come up with only an 11-hour blockbuster. Years ago, that puckish, indomitable tale-spinner Ken Campbell produced The Warp, a cycle of plays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, that lasted for 22 hours, with beer and sausage breaks. We entered the building for coffee one morning and came out for breakfast the next day.