Walking the Tightrope, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Over the course of last year, several high profile political art events were cancelled due to protests and political action. The Tricycle Theatre pulled the UK Jewish Film Festival that was part-funded by the Israeli government (then changed its decision after it was too late), Barbican art installation “Exhibit B” that depicted black people (actual people, not mannequins) in cages closed the day after it opened, and Underbelly cancelled Israeli hip-hop musical The City at the Fringe last year after its first preview. More recently, the National Youth Theatre stopped a new play, Homegrown, about Islamic extremists from opening for reasons that are still unclear. These events polarized audiences, artists and others, re-sparking the censorship debate: should art be censored? If so, under what circumstances? Should racist/offensive/morally questionable art and/or art funded by racist/offensive/morally questionable sources be censored? Producers and venues also asked themselves: how far do the protests have to go before we have to give in?

Eight, 5-minutes plays by established playwrights in response to these event cancellations, followed by a panel discussion with rotating guests, create Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics. Today’s panel was Jonathan Mills (Former Director, Edinburgh International Festival), Fergus Linehan (Director, Edinburgh International Festival) and Tim Fountain (writer). A cast of four excellently performs the mini-plays; the scripts are powerful and constructively contribute to the debate, and the discussion itself can become a piece of one-off theatre once the audience is handed the microphones.

For uncomfortable shock value, Neil Labute’s two-hander Exhibit A gives us Syrus Lowe as an artist and Melissa Woodbridge as a drugged art student. As Lowe’s character performs his latest piece on a bound, moaning Woodbridge, he challenges the audience to intervene, or object that what he does is not art. Whilst what he does is awful to witness, it is equally disturbing that the audience does not respond to his challenges.

Tim Fountain’s Beyond the Fringe is a hilarious and thought-provoking family piece. The mum is a writer trying to stop the Israeli performance at Underbelly, her son is a fringe performer who is going to see the show. I find myself relating to, and laughing at, both of their perspectives, illustrating the multi-faceted complexity the issue poses.

What Are We Going To Do About Harry? is Mark Revenhill’s contribution that personalises the dilemma between maintaining funding streams from the white, middle-class and meeting diversity targets by disenfranchising these backers. This is another piece with no easy solution to the problem it poses.

Other highlights are Timberlake Wertenbaker’s satire of the BBC, Shampoo, and Re:Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan that stages an imaginary casting for the banned “Exhibit B.” The final play, Tickets Are Now on Sale by Caryl Churchill was an anti-climax, but still a witty look at funding sources. Another letdown was that in such a politically charged event, only two of the eight performed plays were by women.

The post-show discussion provided additional commentary and historical context to the cancellations. Jonathan Mills, former Edinburgh International Festival director, and current director Fergus Linehan explain that protests against the arts have been happening in Britain for a long time. Tim Fountain elucidates that Underbelly eventually came to the decision to cancel the Israeli show because the protests had grown to such an extent that protesters were affecting other performances and audiences in the venue.

Fountain and Mills go on to discuss the challenges faced by police and venue security, then address whether all art is inherently political: “If all art is political, it becomes agit-prop.” Art is political, but is also has other functions, such an engagement and humour. Linehan touches on funding and calls for cases to be looked at individually. Fountain discusses venues’ loyalties to their artists in the face of adversity, and then the audience has the chance to ask the panel questions.

Q1: Is there ever a place for boycott in the arts?

Q2: How can a space for discussion within the festival be created?

And, then “Q3”.

Now, what happens isn’t even a question, but a tirade that personalised last year’s protests at Underbelly. An older lady who protested The City explains that the Palestinians supported the production boycott and even though their protest was disruptive, the protesters were also treated horribly. The panel attempt to respond and placate: both sides behaved badly, we need to create a space where both artists and protesters can be heard, etc. Fountain simply states, “You won.” The woman was having none of it, tensions rise on both sides, and she walks out.

Whilst this becomes an improvised, topical performance in itself with passions and viewpoints laid bare in preparation for battle, the woman’s preface to her comment sticks with me:

She explains that she isn’t an artist, and is completely removed from the “mystical process” of making art. She is just an ordinary person.

It saddens me that the creative process is still considered some sort of abstraction by people who are somehow not considered normal citizens who do a job, trying to make a living. This singular comment proves that artists are not engaging enough with “ordinary people”. This isn’t about getting bums on seats. It’s about not engaging the wider population in the process of how art is made.

Perhaps if this lady, and the wider population of non-artists, did not feel so alienated from the creative process and artists themselves, both sides of this fight would have a greater understanding of the other. Imagine what society would be like if the general public and British government actually comprehended what was involved in making art and saw it as work rather than a “mystical process”.

Take a moment, picture that world, then decide what you’re going to do about it.

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