THE WORD Beyond conflict - the spirit of EdFest, 70 years on
Graham Sheffield, director of arts at the British Council, on the bequest to the world of the Edinburgh International Festival as it celebrates its 70th birthday with the ‘Spirit of ’47’, a collaboration across this year’s programme between the festival and the council
The cultural maelstrom that envelops Edinburgh throughout August makes it easy to forget the post-war origins of this international festival. The story has often been told of what led to the selection of Edinburgh as the location (not the first choice of city - Oxford apparently was initially preferred); of the local politics which permeated the early discussions; and of the prescient choice of Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario from Germany, who fled the Nazi regime to unlikely success in the UK: first as the Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera and thence to Edinburgh, to co-found - with native Scot and Director of the British Council in Scotland, Henry Harvey Wood - and direct the first Edinburgh Inter- national Festival.
This spirit of post-war international collaboration set the festival on a course which has characterised the city in August for the past 70 years, and which infuses not just the Edinburgh International Festival but all of the other myriad festivals which have blossomed from its well-established roots: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival etc. All contribute to the global standing of this beautiful and ancient city, to its reputation as a platform for innovative, off-kilter arts and culture and its international, welcoming outlook.
An anniversary presents a time for comparisons, and the world of 1947 and 2017 throws up interesting contrasts and parallels. We are more aware of the positive influence that the influx of new, international minds can have on culture and society; and up to speed on the positive impact of the free movement of people and ideas across borders, not just in Europe but globally. We can look back with confidence on the origins of EIF, knowing that the impact that the nascent idea of Rudolf Bing and Henry Harvey Wood would have not just on the first festival, but on all subsequent ones.
At the same time, however, the early 21st century has brought uncertainty on a global scale – often drawing parallels with the 1930s, so far re- moved from that post-war spirit.
We have the fallout of the economic crash and old orders displaced; a tectonic shift in how, why and who communicates and who understands; economic migration and refugees. And dominating UK politics is the decision to leave the EU, raising question marks over the future freedom of movement and ideas, through students, artists and communities. The spirit of collaboration – the spirit of 1947 – which has characterised the festivals in Edinburgh for 70 years, could be in question.
This formed the backdrop for the discussions Fergus Linehan, director of Edinburgh International Festival, and I had around the British Council’s contribution to EIF’s 70th Anniversary programme. We wanted to reflect and reiterate the mission of 1947 within today’s world and with- in today’s arts landscape. “Spirit of ‘47” is the result: ten days of performances, films and discussions, with artists from Scotland, England, USA, Ukraine, Lebanon, Cuba, China, Jamaica, Palestine, Chile, Argentina, Syria, Portugal, Germany, Iran, Pakistan and India gathering in Edinburgh in August, along with the thousands of other visitors from all over the world who travel there.
In 1947 the emphasis was on reconnecting Europe, reconciling former adversaries (and allies) in a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration. The programme for the first EIF was weighted towards classical music and theatre. In 2017, however, both EIF’s and our own horizons are broader.
Spirit of ’47 will see veterans from both sides of the Falklands War talking about their experiences on stage together, in the critically acclaimed stage play by Argentinian director Lola Arias, Minefield. It will provide a platform for the Iranian director Azade Shahmiri to explore a not-too- distant dystopian future, where freedom of expression has finally been stifled, in the play Voicelessness. It will bring a group of displaced Syrian artists and lm-makers together to offer a fresh perspective on how war affects the lives of artists – and it will mark the creation of the “New European Songbook”: unique collaborations between musicians from across the continent, performed and recorded live, for a future, European-wide broadcast.
Edinburgh in August provides a gateway into the arts scene of the UK, and a representative picture of the attitudes of inclusivity, curiosity and optimism that can and must continue to characterise our arts and culture. In 1947 the festival’s founders looked at their shattered world and saw the building blocks of something better. In 2017, amid the turbulence of economics and politics, we should think of those pioneers and keep our eyes and minds open for the building blocks of today.
The Edinburgh International Festival is on until August 28 www.eif.co.uk