Monday, 7 August 2017

Edinburgh's International Festival - for the elite, or for the masses?

A little-known fact of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), is that it has always included on its board a representative from the city’s trade unionists. Appointed by Edinburgh’s TUC, the impact of this link has had varying levels of influence over the 70 years of the Festival’s existence.
The tensions between ‘working-class’ or ‘peoples’ culture and the ‘highbrow’ culture that the International Festival has sometimes seemed to celebrate, occurred early on and is referred to in this article on the EIF’s history from Adam Behr in The Conversation.
Rudolf Bing, the Festival’s first director, thought contemporary Scottish work unlikely to meet his standards and turned down the successful Glasgow Unity Theatre. They came anyway and performed, along with a number of other companies, on what was to become the Fringe.
The history of Glasgow’s Unity Theatre is worthy of an article (or more) to itself. Formed from a number of working class theatre groups in the city (including the Clarion Players, the Glasgow Workers Theatre group and the Jewish Institute Players) and chaired by ex-shipyard worker and novelist, James Barke, it commissioned and staged a number of important plays, including Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men should weep.
The tensions between ‘elite culture’ and ‘people’s culture’ continues to this day, and it is to immense credit that the EIF that, at the time it is celebrating its 70th year of existence, it is also bringing this debate up front. As part of its ‘Spirit of 47’ season, it is staging Contesting the Spirit of Unity – Whose Festival, Whose Culture? A combination of readings and discussion will be chaired by Director of the Festival, Fergus Linehan and will feature Larry Flanagan – General Secretary of the EIS and Joyce McMillan – theatre critic and NUJ branch chair.
The debate will no doubt continue, but what is significant to me, is the long tradition and continuing vibrancy of people’s culture in Scotland, and particularly in Glasgow. It is a tradition that deserves much more attention than it gets, and its continuing work (through groups like Trades Union Councils, FairPley and many others) still receives less than its fair share of artistic subsidy.
Contesting the Spirit of Unity is at The Studio, 22 Potterrow, Edinburgh at 11.00am on 16 August, Details and Tickets Here.

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