Open Season: Refugee Week & West End Festival

Multi-talented and multi-cultural – we welcome the start of the festival season with an overview of the Central Belt's June offerings

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 01 Jun 2011
  • True Colours

If the idea of a festival has been undermined by over-use – cities are so keen to have their own that a recent jam on the M8 was given a launch party and branded the Sighthill Traffic Parade – Glasgow and Edinburgh seem to have a season that lasts from January to December. Three are vying for attention this month: The Leith Festival, which centres around a fete and trees adorned with knitting; Glasgow’s West End Festival, which collects most of what is happening anyway around Byres Road, expands upon it and gives it a brochure; and Refugee Week, making a strong effort to span the central belt and introduce the arts to a lively political discussion about identity. Once The Festival had links with the carnivalesque, a time of social upheaval and permitted permissiveness, like Glastonbury before they got the fences secure. Now it can be anything from a preferred strategy for community development, a chance to celebrate a particular area, a corporate jamboree safe for the BBC, or an opportunity to match popular, emerging and experimental artists around a loose theme.

Next month sees the national festivals kick off with Latitude and Glastonbury, but this Central Belt trinity cover both the local and the global. The West End Festival is lucky to have bars that stage events and the Oràn Mór’s potted lunchtime classics season – and a resurgent Cottiers that is going full-bore on the classical music. Leith has a powerful regional identity, and a long Walk to exploit, alongside a thriving artistic community. Refugee Week is centred around the Tron and brings together established companies like Natasha Gilmore’s Barrowland Ballet or Seeds of Thought and the intriguing products of workshops and groups.

The best way to enjoy any festival is to see as much as possible, and be open to the themes behind it. A successful festival isn’t about single, outstanding works but the sense of unity and the curator’s vision.

Refugee Week

Belinda McElhinney originally became involved in the Refugee Week through classes she took with the Maryhill Integration Network: before signing up as the Scottish organiser, she performed in 2009's week at the Tron. This personal connection to the events reflects Refugee Week's values of working through existing community projects and giving them a chance to gain the public spotlight.

McElhinney notes that Scotland's Refugee Week is "a platform for community projects, both bringing a momentum to their work and bringing them together." She adds that the involvement of venues like the GFT and Tron – and Stirling's Macrobert – helps to publicise "grass-roots activity and raise awareness of the issues around refugees."

The Tron welcomes: Oliver Emmanuel, recent producer of the madcap success Ink, for a verbatim play about a Jewish couple who escaped Nazism by coming to Scotland; Ragged University talking and reading poetry; Ignite Theatre exploring young people's experience of expectation in a multi-cultural context; the excellent Visible Fictions, staging a one-off storytelling evening and a cabaret from Seeds of Thought. But beyond these shows, the festival reaches out to wider audiences with discussions and workshops.

From a community carnival in Pollokshaws, through the launch of a booklet detailing personal stories, to an all out celebration of diversity led by the Iranian Scottish Association, Refugee Week is as much about understanding as performance. Nevertheless, the music, exhibitions and cinema – including the special screening of their own film at the GFT and across Scotland – emphasises not only the creativity of Scotland's diverse communities, but also the changing identity of the modern Scot. Multi-culturalism is more than just a vague buzz-word or a straw man: it is the heart of the festival's energy

20-26 Jun across Scotland, but especially in Glasgow

West End Festival

What the West End Festival lacks in coherent curation, it makes up for in numbers. The packed brochure demonstrates that the West End – as long as you include everything from Sauchiehall Street outwards – has a series of bars and venues that put on music all year round. Òran Mór, in particular, goes for it during June, and Brel ups the intimate, acoustic gig ante.

The theatre programme is disappointing – not in the quality of work, but in its tiny size and diversity. A Play, A Pie and A Pint has its annual season of mini-versions of classics for the WEF: this year Latin novelist Longus, Shakespeare and Don Giovanni get cut down to size. Bard in the Botanics kicks off, but there is little beyond that. It would be nice if the West End Festival could support the theatre community by commissioning a few pieces, before the exodus to the increasingly hip Southside is completed.

Music is far better represented: Cottiers has an imaginative selection of contemporary and traditional classical, and Òran Mór makes the best use of its downstairs space for music on the acoustic and folky side. PM music, known for their Acoustic Affair gigs, dot shows about the town.

The West End Festival is a fixture – the Parade Sunday is the main carnival jaunt on the West Coast – and it proves how dynamic and busy the city can be. Some more curation, and a few events that would not happen anyway, would add to the value of the month.

3-26 Jun, Glasgow

Refugee Week, 20-26 Jun across Scotland, but especially in Glasgow

West End Festival, 3-26 Jun, Glasgow