Edinburgh Fringe still has a heart

I’ve been here at the Edinburgh Festival for three days so far and it’s fantastic. It’s been sunny for starters, something of a first for me here. There’s a wider array of ‘amnesty stuff’ going on than ever before, so It’s already feeling really buzzy. And I’ve already seen some great shows: Kevin Eldon at the Stand and Arj Barker at the Assembly were both hilarious.

There’s been some talk already this year of the Fringe losing it’s heart, that the commercial drive to get big TV names to fill big venues means the space for small performers to get their first break has shrunk to the size of the sweaty basement in which most of those gigs are staged. In a way I had a taste of both at the weekend.

Daytime was spent in the C Venues SoCo urban garden, where six of scotland’s top graffiti artists were producing, amidst a crowd of increasingly merry and sunburned revellers, a live artwork inspired by the jailed “88 generation” protesters from Burma. I was there with Waihnin Pwint-Thon, a Burmese activist whose father is one of those jailed protesters. The artwork looked amazing and felt like a real celebration of free expression. There’s film of the event going up soon on this site & the artworks will be there throughout the festival.

From the sublime to the utterly ridiculous, we then went to see Tim Vine at the Pleasance, delivering roughly 300 one-liners in the space of an hour to a packed house. A 150-seat venue packed full of punters who know him off the telly and paying £16 a ticket. That said, you get more jokes per pound than any act outside the Free Fringe.

The evening was rounded off with music, poems and stories from Lach, New York music legend whose underground club nights gave birth to the “Anti-folk” scene in the US. His late night open mike slot “The “Anti Hoot” at the Gilded Balloon is enough to restore the faith of any cynic who feels the fringe has lost its way. Anyone can perform which means a couple acts were, frankly, howlers. But there were some real gems: music from a guy called Burton and a band called Holden and stand up from Glaswegian Davey See. Apparently by leaving at 2.30am I missed a German electro band that brought the house down. Plus Lach’s charm and passion for live performance per se underscored the whole night.

The Edinburgh Festival remains a true celebration of freedom of expression. Yes, it is doubtless more commercial now than it once was. Sadly everything seems to be. But when you walk up the royal mile and see the performers promoting their shows, or you bump into Julius Caesar in full robes coming out of a kebab shop as I did on saturday night, you still get a sense of something very alive and genuine, that the accountants have no grasp of nor interest in.

I bumped into comedian Josie Long on Saturday, who’d been recording an interview for the Amnesty International Comedy Podcast (out today!). She told me how inspired she’d been by a gig she did for Amnesty’s local Islington group, where two Burmese campaigners came along to tell their story. She’s now supporting our campaign for Zarganar, Burma’s top comedian, who’s serving 35 years in prison for criticising the government. Mark Watson, Rob Rouse and other comics are also backing the campaign. Defending and supporting the right to freedom of expression, by giving space to new voices in Edinburgh or championing those being silenced in Burma, is the spirit of the Fringe. It is far from dead.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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