Still a Platform for the Flowering of the Human Spirit?

Can the 70th Edinburgh International Festival remain true to its roots in a changing political climate, asks Theo Bosanquet

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EIF launch 2017
Published 22 Jul 2017

In 1947 Rudolf Bing, then general manager of Glyndebourne Opera, and Henry Harvey Wood, head of the British Council in Scotland, came together to organise the first Edinburgh International Festival. In the wake of the devastation of World War Two it would, they said, "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. 

Now, on the eve of the 70th festival, its current artistic director is reflecting on that founding ideology. “It was largely about countering the chaos of the post-war period,” says Fergus Linehan, who succeeded Sir Jonathan Mills in 2014. 

“People were looking for some sort of compass towards a civilised life again, and arts and culture was a guiding star. Also, considering the context of the war, any celebration had to be international, it had to be secular. It was an extraordinary act of reconciliation.”

But what does this harmonious sentiment mean in a contemporary Britain riven by political division, inequality and Brexit? The mood of the nation currently feels more ’39 than ’47. Does the internationalism of the EIF now run counter to our times? Is it a relic of a bygone age? 

Linehan, who aligns the original festival with the beginning of the “European ideal”, admits the current climate is a challenge. “We’ve got to redefine our relationship with Europe… But nobody as far as I can see wants us to pull up the drawbridge. There’s an enormous enthusiasm to restate the international networks that currently exist.”

He refers to a “large centre ground” of people who still believe in a “shared cultural heritage” with Europe, but acknowledges that divisions in society as a whole appear to be deepening. “There’s no doubt this is a concerning time. But art also brings comfort that resolution is possible.”

This year’s programme features several classical works that Linehan says can provide a steer on contemporary events. Among them is Zinnie Harris's adaptation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, one of three works Harris is presenting in this year’s programme (the others are Meet Me at Dawn and a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros). 

Harris says the Greek trilogy, which centres on a cycle of familial revenge, “speaks of the danger of holding grudges, and how we must come at difficult situations with forgiveness”. And she feels strongly that theatre is the right medium for these times: “It’s a space where we can regroup and collectively examine where we are.”

Alongside marquee productions such as Oresteia: This Restless House and Alan Ayckbourn’s two-part epic The Divide, Linehan has also programmed a strand of smaller events this year under the banner 'Spirit of ’47', honouring the founding partnership with the British Council. Based at The Studio on Potterrow, it will feature a series of performances and platforms celebrating international collaboration.

Elyse Dodgson, the Royal Court’s international director, is overseeing a series of six staged readings titled New and Now. She says it’s a unique opportunity to highlight the venue’s global outlook. “Having a presence at the EIF is having a presence in the whole world. We’re really excited to see how not just the audiences but our international colleagues respond to the work.”

That notion of showcase, of providing a window to the world, is an important component of the EIF’s continuing appeal, and of the many festivals now in its orbit. It’s no empty boast to say that for the month of August, Edinburgh is the centre of the arts world. Artists come not just to reach new audiences but to put their work in a global context – in Dodgson’s words, “to start an international dialogue”.

Renowned Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern is marking his third appearance this year with Krapp’s Last Tape. What keeps him coming back? “It’s a festival like no other, in that it has such a range of the performing arts. There’s a huge cross-pollination. As well as theatre I’m also big classical music fan, so for me it’s not just a busman’s holiday.” 

In terms of politics, McGovern isn’t convinced the EIF has the capacity to change people’s views. But the mere act of coming together to enjoy performance, he says, “helps to stop people becoming polarised”. For all the emphasis on artistic themes and programming choices, it is perhaps this simple act of collective enjoyment that holds the key to the festival’s longevity.

Linehan agrees. “People needed a party in ’47. The lights had been turned off, there was rationing, there was a desperate need for celebration. That created a very strong foundation, because it was less about celebrating the arts and more about using the arts to address a fundamental need for us to come together.”

With this in mind he’s programming a much broader range of music this year: PJ Harvey, Martin Creed and Meow Meow alongside Wagner, Britten and Mozart. This is partly a recognition, he says, of the fact cultural lines are becoming ever more blurred. Categorisations of ‘pop’ and ‘classical’ increasingly feel anachronistic.

But after so much reflection, it's time to look forward. What does he feel the next 70 years might bring for the EIF? “If I really looked into my crystal ball, I’d say there are questions around whether the profile of tourists will change, as well as the shifting geography of the city. But though everyone is always interested in evolution, a sense of continuity is also vital.”

One thing he is certain of is that the Edinburgh Festivals are set to keep growing, though he cautions about the impact of a possible post-Brexit recession. As the country enters unchartered territory, so do its arts institutions. But whatever the political backdrop, says Linehan, the original vision of Rudolf Bing and Henry Harvey Wood will remain. “We will, we must, always stay open and available to the world’s greatest artists.”

The Mother of All Festivals

It's fair to say that the EIF has inspired others to come together in a celebration of the arts – most obviously in 1947 when a group of artists were refused entry to the Edinburgh programme so, undeterred, went ahead with the first Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It's now the world's largest arts festival. So there.

Fast forward to 2017 and skip through 135 degrees longditude, and you'll find the second largest festival in the world: the Adelaide Fringe Festival. Running for a whole month in February/March, the Adelaide Fringe has definitely taken on the Edinburgh vibe, scraping together venues from any passably habitable space and turning the city into an arts hub for the whole world. With added sun. It's also got the multi-festival theme that makes Edinburgh such an exciting place in August, with the Adelaide Festival, Writers' Week and WOMADelaide happening at the same time. Edinburgh take note: Adelaide has a free opening night. And cool mascots.

Closer to home, Edinburgh is not the only location in Scotland hosting an arts festival in August. The Pittenweem Arts Festival on the coast of Fife is exactly half the age of the EIF (35), and has grown so popular it has even borne its own Fringe. Created by a small group of artists in the local community, it now hosts over 100 artists and makers who exhibit in various studios, homes and public spaces around the picturesque village.