What to Expect at Beltane

Beltane Fire Festival is presented as ‘investigative theatre’; set outdoors and with no physical curtains or barriers. We advertise a ‘doors open’ time along with an approximation of when the performance will begin (when the sun goes down) and of course a set time for the public to leave Calton Hill too, but that is as much of a nod to traditional theatre as you’ll find.

There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming’.

Andrea and I (we were photopoint buddies for the evening) were moving between two of our assigned locations (leaving Foxes at the Bower and joining the Reds at the top of the Charge Slope) and as we passed the Acropolis we could look down over the procession at Water Point and the sea of heads giving just a hint of the scale of what we were all involved with, and with the lights of the city echoing the lights of the Torchies it was just a bit of a magical moment. | Copyright Martin McCarthy for Beltane Fire Society.

If you haven’t experienced the Festival you’ll likely have deduced that there is no central point where everything is performed, rather there are multiple points of focus that are spread around the marvellous public parkland on Calton Hill. A large part of the story follows the Procession of the May Queen around the Hill, but there are also counter-performances and roaming groups which have evolved to bring balance to the darker parts of the park. (Again: follow the sound of the drums.) The Procession’s presence awakens one group after another, each then continuing to play a part throughout the evening; the Hill comes alive, mirroring the earth’s awakening through Spring.

In general we shy away from the use of actual staging as that presents an instant barrier between performance and witness. That’s not an exclusive rule however, as both of the major ‘set piece’ performances utilise staging to help balance their sheer scale. The first is during the spectacular opening sequence at the National Monument (known lovingly as The Acropolis) and the second during the penultimate event of the evening: The Death and Rebirth of the Green Man. In other words we attempt to match the tool to the job.

Finally, Beltane Fire Festival is a continuous performance lasting over three hours. Attendees have the opportunity to create their own breaks in which to step back and raise a toast to the onset of Summer.

Featured image by Duncan Reddish for Beltane Fire Society. All rights reserved.