Merchant City Festival 2008 @ Various venues, Glasgow, 25-28 Sep

Edinburgh has had its month, but Glasgow is the real Festival City. Gareth K Vile finds high art on the street corners.

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 05 Sep 2008

With the Edinburgh Festival season safely tucked away, Glasgow immediately stakes its claim to be Scotland's festival city for a bit. The Merchant City Festival is brief - running from 25 to 28 September - but dynamic, bringing together guerrilla performance art, French acrobatics, new drama and comedy in a celebration of the East End’s emerging artistic quarter. Directed by Neil Butler - himself a former performer - it promises to have a distinctive identity.

“We are interested in creating a festival that expresses the best in Scottish arts and culture,” Butler suggests. “Anywhere I go in Europe, people ask when is the best time to go to Scotland to see what is going on there. The Edinburgh festival is the best festival in the world, but it is an international festival. So we wanted something that gave a snapshot of what is really going on in Scottish arts and culture. And so we created a festival where we could get involved with the national companies and get the other festivals involved.”

This open-ended approach to collaboration gives The Merchant City Festival its particular flavour. “We invited Festivals directors around Europe to nominate performances,” he added. “I just wanted to know what would the great festivals suggest - so what we managed to do is bring together acts which are really exciting directors across Europe.”

From Daniel Andrieu of Vive Cite Festival, France, came Two Urbanologists, a surreal study of the city; Pierre Sauvigeot of Lieux Publics offered the walkabout piece, Parfait Etat De Marche. Likewise, Butler has drawn on local knowledge.

“Why should we invent ourselves as comedy programmers when there are already great programmers at the Glasgow Comedy Festival? So if people come to our festival and see a fantastic piece of comedy, they can go to the Glasgow Comedy Festival, or if they see some fantastic performance art, they can go to the National Review of Live Art. We hope to represent what is going on and we are open to partnerships.”

The NRLA - often controversial, always colourful, has a particular place in Butler’s heart. “I think NRLA and New Moves are two great programmes: I co-directed it with Nikki Millican about twenty years ago: people around the world refer to the festivals, they are world-class. I am delighted to have a relationship with them: she has nominated two pieces for us.”

On of these will be an absolute highlight - Brighton agitator and dancer Liz Aggiss.
“I am a huge fan of hers. She is hugely experimental and confrontational - in a good way. She is also very generous in representing other choreographers. You might be in the festival club, or in Merchant Square, or outside a comedy club, and you will see this amazing woman doing amazing things!”

Other contributors include the Dance House - they are presenting a reprise of their child-friendly nightclub, Barefoot Boogie (28 September) and a Burlesque Extravaganza (26 September), devised by Gypsy Charms, one of the school’s teachers and co-founder of The Academy of Burlesque. While details of the latter are a closely guarded secret, an inside source has admitted that one piece “takes its inspiration from 80s iconic films – Fame and Flashdance! There will be a lot of glitter involved!”

The Tron is also contributing a new work: Six Acts of Love by Ioanna Anderson, and directed by Tron boss Andy Arnold. Anderson is a Scottish author, currently based in Dublin and Six Acts is a bitter-sweet meditation on the life of Katherine, who appears to have reached an impasse.

Despite Arnold’s usual taste for existentialist intensity, Anderson doesn’t see herself in the tradition of Pinter or Beckett. “I wouldn’t put myself even remotely on that level! It is quite a different kind of writing,” she admits. “It is quite poetic- it is quite wordy. I find Beckett quite hard, and slightly depressing.”

Six Acts examines the impact of marital breakdown and parental illness, but not in brutal tragedy - there is a humour and compassion that makes this more than hard-hitting angst. Anderson’s attitude towards drama is gentle. “I wouldn’t say that this is a fluffy play: it is happier and warmer. But as I get older, I like to leave the theatre a bit uplifted!” And even though it is part of the Festival, it fit well within the Tron’s own project to develop modern scripts and authors.

The Merchant City Festival runs that difficult line between openness and identity, somehow expressing something potent and coherent without excluding possibilities, or ignoring the natural culture of the surrounding area. By sharing with other festivals, it has a showcase quality, but the angular choices give it a cutting edge charm. Diverse, inclusive - and often free - the events make up a programme that suggests a pattern for all festivals.