Edinburgh International Festival comes home to Leith

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BY JEAN WEST

AN Art Deco theatre, resurrected by passionate local campaigners and experimental events curators, has become global stage for some of Scotland’s finest homegrown talent, as Edinburgh International Festival satellites its music venture, Light on the Shore, into Leith.

After triumphant efforts to breath fresh life into the 1,500 capacity Leith Theatre by various artistic collectives in recent years, the move will be seen as a seal of approval and important validation of their eclectic endeavour, and for the colourful port as a viable festival venue.

Kicking off last night with a glorious set from folk legend King Creosote, who drew on both tried and tested and new material to settle EIF punters into it’s temporary new site, the showcase will include: west coast art rock outfit, Django Django, Celtic song bird, Karine Polwart, Glasgow post rock experimenters, Mogwai, Hollywood star, Alan Cumming, who returns with camp hit Club Cumming, and visionary folk heroes, Lau, with an ambitious programme charting the history of popular Scottish music over 16 nights.

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

Hidden Door, the local arts organisation whose grassroots work in investing in the theatre as venue for their popular festival, helped make this event possible,  Neu!Reekie, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and Lau will all be curating events.

The mini-festival, described as ‘a home-coming’ for the international Festival, which occupied the space in the sixties, is a good news story for the district, whose fortunes over the decades has been chequered.

It will be seen as opportunity to zoom in on Leith’s unique personality, whilst encouraging funding for further artistic development, not least of the impressive theatre itself, which once hosted big names like AC/DC Kraftwerk and the Bay City Rollers, and is currently fund-raising for a £7 million refurbishment.

But the venture, which has left most parties smiling, is not without some disquiet. Some performers have been vocal about protecting the artistic fabric of Leith and want any spin-offs of the season to maintain the collaborative, community-based feel nurtured by EIF director, Fergus Linehan.

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

News that Hidden Door, the volunteer, multi arts festival, which identified the potential of the ruined theatre, had become victim of its own success, fighting for its financial future, after investing all to bring the theatre alive, has cast some shadow over the proceedings.

David Martin, creative director, of Hidden Door, which has for five years been salvaging derelict architectural gems and turning them into exciting venues, said: “It (was an) expensive venture for a tiny, volunteer run, non profit organisation, which started with nothing, without any backing or investment.

“We are in a position that we need money if we are to move forward, evolve th organisation, and continue opening up new spaces. Without that, the Hidden Door story sadly ends here.”

Hidden Door will be launching a crowdfunding campaign next week, he added.

Nonetheless, he said it was delighted to be curating a line up including, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Honeyblood, and Spinning Coin, at Light On The Shore: “We like the idea of opening up new spaces, as almost a physical metaphor. For the international festival to come in and to take that on is really exciting.

“I am really proud that they are collaborating with us and Neu! Reekie! and Lau about creating a space for experimentation. I like to think we can set the agenda. The international festival is not repeating the same formula everywhere. It’s really good for Leith.”

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

Both Hidden Door and arts collective, Neu! Reekie!, dubbed as ‘a monthly headfuck of poetry, animation and music,’ have won almost cult status in recent years, soliciting and providing opportunity for often groundbreaking new talent.

But Neu! Reekie’s director, Kevin Williamson, whilst welcoming the Light On The Shore programme, said it did not come without a certain social responsibility to the community .
He pointed to the importance of artists being mindful of the impact of gentrification in the district,  and most notably plans by the University of Edinburgh to develop Leith Walk at any expense to community identity.

“Leith is at a crossroads just now, a dangerous crossroads,” he said.

“The community is being torn apart. People are a mixture of angry and depressed.  When a gentrification process goes on in a predominantly working class community, it is usually because artists have made it cool in the first place. So artists have a responsibility to stop the gentrification process.”

With Leith Depot, a popular local music venue, and the multicultural facade of the thoroughfare at risk from the development, he added: “It is important that Leith Theatre becomes a light on the shore.”

He said artists who made the district fashionable would soon not be able to afford to stay there.

The Neu!Reekie! bill includes, the Fire Engines, Lydia Lunch, Michael Rother and Honey Farm, The Vaselines, The Pastels, and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Parallels with Leith Theatre and the Barrowlands in Glasgow have already been made and some have already identified it as the best live music venue in Scotland.

Karine Polwart, who will bring her Scottish Songbook to the event said: “It’s a really amazing space. From my experience of touring in Scotland, there are very few spaces like this.I hope this is a success and something the people of Leith can get behind as well as the rest of the city. There is still a lot of money to be raised.”

Mr Linehan, Artistic Director of Edinburgh International Festival, described Light On The Shore as ‘a wide ranging collaborative effort: “The curatorial talents of many of Scotland’s greatest artists and promoters have delivered a truly unique snapshot of Scottish music and its wide-ranging interconnectivity.

He praised the work of the Leith Theatre Trust, alongside Hidden Door and Neu! Reekie!  as having been integral  in lifting Leith Theatre from the ashes, adding: “With the support of the Expo Fund through the Scottish Government and our sponsors Edinburgh Gin, we are excited to present a hugely diverse and far reaching programme.’

A spokesperson from Leith Theatre Trust, added: “It is particularly appropriate for this focus on our musical community to happen at Leith Theatre, where we are working towards bringing the building back into permanent life to service the city’s need for an excellent music venue and to provide the strong community of Leith with a cultural hub.”

Other ground-breaking works by Scottish artists, will be reimagined in three orchestral concerts. Martyn Bennett’s Bothy Culture features The GRIT Orchestra in a live performance at Edinburgh Playhouse; Berlin’s classical collective s t a r g a z e rework Boards of Canada’s 1996 classic Hi Scores, and Southbank Sinfonia join Anna Meredith with new arrangements to expand her Scottish Album of the Year Award-winning Varmints.
The  programme runs alongside The National Museum of Scotland’s Rip It Up exhibition charting the story of the country’s popular music scene.

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