Sunday, 1 September 2013

Radical Shifts on the Fringe - Fringe Blog no 2

The Morning Star website is currently being revamped and unavailable, so here is my article published in this weekend's edition. It is a summary of my thoughts on this year's Edinburgh Fringe shows.

If politics is show business for ugly people, then show business should be aware of political attempts to move into their territory more comprehensively!

Before this year's Edinburgh Fringe. some commentators (including this one) identified an increase in the number of political shows. Even with a surprisingly low level of shows dealing with Scotland's referendum, especially from Scottish writers.

After three weeks viewing, I can a) confirm that there was a large amount of both overtly political shows and shows with a political angle, and b) while the referendum was covered, especially in spoken word events, it did not form a major theme. Even in a wide-ranging seminar on political theatre it only got one mention in a uplifting discussion that identified political theatre as still very prominent.

Partly because, as respected commentator, Joyce MacMillan, points out, the constitutional debate has been part of the cultural background in Scotland for years, and many writers have moved on. They deal with wider overarching political and human issues - like David Greig in The Events, which deals with our reaction to atrocity. Inspired by (but not directly dealing with) the Anders Breivik murders, this will become a very important play.

Other productions dealt with political history - like Unite-sponsored, We will be Free, Townsend’s Tolpuddle Martyrs' play, or particular issues, like Northern Stage's How to Occupy an Oil Rig - an entertaining training session on direct action in climate change campaigning.

Many productions deal with non-political topics, but allow political issues to feature. An effective
example, is FairPley's production of God Bless Liz Lochhead! in which a struggling group of thesps attempt to re-create a 12 character play with 3 actors! While the convolutions this entails deliver a very funny play, it also makes a comment on the politics of cultural funding in Scotland.

Of course, there is more to the Fringe than drama. Comedy has always been a strongpoint, and this year the return of many 'Alternative Comedy' legends brought that political edge. Mark Thomas crammed a hugely busy schedule with shows on Extreme Rambling along the Israeli apartheid wall; debates on the efficacy of some of his previous Manifesto pledges; and his new 100 Acts of Minor Dissent project. He reached 26 by organising a stand-up demo outside the Russian Consulate against their anti-gay laws! Alexei Sayle, too, came from stand-up exile to prove he was as ascerbic as ever. After 17 years away, he can be forgiven some slight rustiness!

Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister's The State of Britain was one show that took the independence debate head-on, but did seem to be unsure of its audiences, possibly for a similar reason to Steve Richards. The political columnist said in the Guardian that he had had to tailor his act to Scottish or other UK audiences on a show-by-show basis.

A further reason for more politics this year is the massive increase in spoken word events. Once the province of the Book Festival, the Fringe started listing these separately a few years ago. This year has seen an explosion in such shows.

Driven by demand (The Book Festival resolutely refuses to move anywhere bigger), the need for promoters to fill venues during the day, and the relative ease of staging this type of show, debates, discussions, Q&As, demonstrations etc. sprang up all over. Most of all, there is an audience for these shows, which is good news for political debate. Almost all major venue complexes featured some spoken word, but the major venue, was the Assembly Rooms/Famous Spiegeltent. FairPley Productions contributed massively, by importing their Verb Garden from the Belladrum festival. The concept - backed by the Co-operative Membership, covered many topics and presented major politicians such as Tony Benn, and George Galloway MP, journalists like BBCs Brian Taylor and Iain Macwhirter, and academics and comedians. Even including the finalist of 2012 Great British Bakeoff, James Morton!

Stephen Wright of FairPley, thinks that spoken word can only increase. "While you need to
programme different topics carefully," he said. "the demand is there for politics. We will be building on that, both in Edinburgh and elsewhere."

God Bless Liz Lochhead!

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