Muster Station: Leith

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The annual August cover for that much missed Edinburgh force of nature, Shavers Weekly magazine, blazoned the same provocation every year: Here Come the Festival Wanks.

Its wit was in the truth it revealed, which was relished by many curmudgeons, who resented the World’s 4th largest ticketed event disrupting their routines.

It is, of course, not the whole story. While it may be an apt description for the lottery that can be the Fringe Festival, in a neat reversal of roles it is, to my mind, unfair to employ the same welcome when describing Edinburgh’s International Festival.

EIF - unbelievably celebrating its 75th anniversary this year - has moved from being for the elite to being for all, including the locals. It is also affordable, and better value than the top pricing being charged for some fringe acts.

The diversity of this year’s programme and the theme of Internationalism aims to highlight the importance of culture and art. This goes right back to the original altruism of the Festival: to reach out a hand to the vanquished and unite around arts and culture.

Famously this saw the conductor Bruno Walter, a refugee from the Anschluss in Austria in 1938, reunited with the Vienna Philharmonic in Edinburgh in 1947 at the first Festival.

A central plank of this year’s programme is a collaboration with the Scottish Refugee Council – Refuge - with works in multiple art forms. Ranging from an art installation of a house in Ramallah to It Will Live by Leena Nammari and the podcast I Am an Immigrant. To various online conversations. All these events are free. Other events range in price from £5 to a top price of £15, only Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe can beat those prices.

However, it’s in its commitment to Leith that EIF comes into its own. Leith Theatre once again becomes the go to place for a range of acts that will continue to promote the potential that is yet to be unlocked in this venue of great expectations.

I thoroughly recommend Taraf de Caliu who are rightly the stuff of legend and make the Gypsy Kings look like Mumford and Sons. Another must see are Ibeyi, who feature on Beyonce’s Lemonade album, and have just collaborated with Residente on the track This is not America, a viral hit in Latin America

There are other acts here too, such as a rare appearance from Arab Strap. And whilst not cheap - tickets are priced between £26 and £31 - from what I’ve previously seen, you will be seeing top artists in a venue that will do them justice.

This year sees the end of EIF’s 4-year residency at Leith Academy and to mark it Grid Iron Theatre have worked with the school to produce Muster Station: Leith, a promenade performance, in the school.

This is an experience which is not just a performance but a provocation, as it pushes the audience towards being part of the performance. The Academy is an intriguing building and it will be interesting to see how Grid Iron interpret the space performance wise.

There are other events too that showcase the egalitarian side of the Festival. The opening night is at Murrayfield Stadium where : sees the Australian circus powerhouse Gravity & Other Myths and the First Nations dance-theatre troupe Djuki Mala, among others, opening this year’s International Festival. And, yes, it’s free!

Also free is a 75th anniversary concert by The Philadelphia Orchestra on the afternoon of 27th August. You’ll find lots more in this year’s programme, at prices which more than compete with what some comedians, performers and promoters on the Fringe will charge for admission.

Don’t get me wrong, there is interesting stuff in the Fringe, but it’s the aforementioned Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe that encapsulates the challenge and some of the mischief too which prompted some to create a space that was not for the elite. The concept here is that you pay what you think the show is worth.

There are some real gems in this programme (The Andy Kaufman Show anyone)? Along with traditional fringe favourites such as Attila the Stockbroker at Bannermans 14-19th August and the legend that is John Otway at the Voodoo Rooms on 8th August.

Even further leftfield entertainment can be found at the Banshee Labyrinth on the 9th and 23rd August where the Creative Martyrs bring you their ‘post satirical satirically cheerful doom’. I’ve enjoyed their Weimar style cabaret act many times, if you haven’t, do make the effort to see what the Fringe should really be about. All of the above are ‘really free’ as John Otway sings but all deserve your hard-earned cash for their work.

So aye, here indeed come the Festival Wanks, as Shavers Weekly attests. In their wake, from all over the world, some of the best art and live entertainment on the planet descends on this city. Our city. Right here, right now.

Let’s have fun. ■

Gordon Munro

Leith Academy in Edinburgh Festival mode

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The conductor Bruno
Walter, a refugee from the Anschluss in Austria in 1938, reunited with the Vienna Philharmonic at the inaugural festival in 1947

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