Politics at the Fringe

As Edinburgh gears up for a packed Fringe, we take a look at the shows which offer a political commentary on the world at large, and ask if theatre itself is inherently political

Feature by Eric Karoulla | 01 Aug 2013

Some people say everything is political. While this statement might hold true for certain things, it doesn’t necessarily always help the critic with an analysis of theatre. Then again, perhaps theatre as we know it is inevitably and inherently political, since it involves an artist exerting their right to free expression. It doesn’t really consider anything that is not an issue in modern society – admittedly, that doesn’t explain the underlying motives for creating certain musicals, although there are a fair few that sparked controversy and debate in their time, like Jesus Christ Superstar in the seventies, or film-turned-musical Priscilla.

Even just flicking through this year’s programme, it is obvious a great deal of political commentary is bursting to the surface; How to Occupy an Oil Rig, The Exception and the Rule, and Daniel Bye’s The Price of Everything are just a few of the works on the stage grappling with politics and the current socioeconomic situation. Quite a few of today’s young Scotland-based theatremakers like Rob Drummond, Harry Giles (curator of Anatomy at Summerhall), Nic Green, and Kieran Hurley are considered political thespians. This often goes hand in hand with social activism, and activism through art.

When chatting to The Skinny about his work, Hurley commented: “I don’t set out self-consciously to be a political theatremaker. Normally, my work starts from me thinking about a broad thematic - a political or social thematic - and figuring out stories within that. It just really comes from an impulse of wanting to create something that I think actually matters.”

Kieran Hurley is performing in Beats, which also features DJ Hush Puppy (Alan Miller) behind the decks. In many publications, it has been described as the prequel to Chalk Farm, probably due to its strong political content. The play follows the coming of age story of a young man in London in the 1990s, around the time the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act came into effect. The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act effectively banned raves and unlicensed outdoor gatherings. The legislation defines raves as “a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons at which amplified music is played during the night.” Music is described as follows: “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

The performer and writer explained: “That [the Act] was interesting to me. It says something interesting about how power is threatened by young people gathering together, even when that gathering might not be subconsciously political.” It went on to win the Arches Platform 18 Award 2012, an award that prides itself on exploring new directions and supporting new work, and emergent artists.

Meanwhile, Thick Skin theatre are bringing their version of Chalk Farm, an emotionally charged play about the London riots of 2011. Hurley co-wrote it with AJ Taudevin last year. Taudevin will also be performing in Thick Skin’s version.

A reasonably young company, Thick Skin are exciting to watch, as their productions are constructed with a great deal of weight on the visual. They seem to enjoy mashing together physical movement and text with digital media - someting that became quite obvious in Boy Magnet (THAT festival 2012, Macrobert).

As a writer, Kieran Hurley has contributed a few pieces to Theatre Uncut for their 2013 season, and sneak peeks of these plays will pop up at the Traverse. Formed in 2010 as a response to cuts in public spending, Theatre Uncut are intent on using theatre as a medium of response to global events and societal pressures. This year, they’ve brought along a double bill of David Greig’s Dalgety and Fragile. Kieran was an actor in Glasgow Uncut, the first year Theatre Uncut were active.

Then, there is the Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. A political mêlée bringing together artists from both England and Scotland, it is an attempt to create a ballad for our time. With nineteen guest balladeers, and six resident ones - Kieran Hurley and Cora Bissett on the Scottish side, and Chris Thorpe, Alex Kelly, Lucy Ellinson, and Daniel Bye on the English one - it could be seen as a glorified jam session. Of course, within the context of the Scottish independence debate, it could take on a completely different significance.

Chronologically, Whatever Gets You Through The Night is probably the oldest production Hurley is involved with. Albeit not political, this is an extremely popular piece that recreates various soundscapes from across Scotland between midnight and 4am, from urban to rural and back. It showcases big names of the Scottish theatre and music scene: Cora Bissett, David Greig, RM Hubbert, The Errors, and Kieran Hurley, to name but a few. Aside from his role as a writer and performer, Hurley is also participating in TalkFest 2013. Last year, he invited to be a panelist in the discussion regarding theatre and technology, and he has been called back. He is chairing the discussion Whatever happened to political drama? although, examining the number of shows that come under the genre of political theatre in the programme, it is hard to imagine there being a lack of political work.

TalkFest is put together by the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, and brings the public in touch with artists to explain how they make work, and what stimulates them to make work. Other talks include Let the games begin: The art and artifice of live performance chaired by Clare Duffy; Big Bang Theatre chaired by Rob Drummond, and The Body Politic: The human body as the drama chaired by Jo Clifford.

Of course, when discussing political theatre at the Fringe, it would be hubris to talk solely about Scottish work and overlook companies like Ontroerend Goed (Belgium). Based on the trailer they’ve created for their latest production, it appears they are taking apart the veneer that is the theatricality of politics at the time is most obvious: election time. This is Fight Night, an immersive reinterpretation of media-saturated democracy and the traps that are innate in the election system. They clearly have something to say regarding the legitimacy of Europe and the Western world, made up of democratic countries that storm into other countries under the pretext they are to bring about the 'utopia' that is democracy.

Then, there are other kinds of politics that don't attack the system itself head-on, but rather examine how traditional politics treat specific groups. With a great deal of feminist work coming through, gender politics are discussed at length in pieces like Motherland by Vincent Dance Theatre, or The Fanny Hill Project by TheatreState, and Fanny Whittington by Lashings of Ginger Beer Time.

Finally, how can we forget the subversive politics of cabaret? Admittedly, cabaret has its own section in the programme, but performance is performance. Cabaret is by no means a lesser genre of performance, and has its own rich history of tackling the system's politics. What’s more, when performers from the cabaret scene like Scottee of Eat Your Heart Out fame elect to go solo and launch a career in theatre, how can we say that theatre is not political?

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