Walking the Tightrope: politics at Edinburgh Fringe

Playwrights Neil LaBute and Omar El-Khairy talk about Walking the Tightrope, censorship and the arts, and The Arches closure ahead of their short plays coming to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 02 Jul 2015
  • Walking the Tightrope

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Israeli theatre company Incubator Theatre had their show cancelled at Underbelly after demonstrations due to the situation in Gaza. This year, Underbelly are making a brave move with Walking the Tightrope, a production by Offstage Theatre and Underbelly Productions in association with Theatre Uncut. 

Walking the Tightrope is a series of short, political plays exploring freedom of expression and censorship within theatre and the arts, examining the very issues that Underbelly themselves came into contact with last year. In addition to the short plays, each performance will be followed by a panel show, inviting the audience as well as the theatre makers and invited panellists to discuss the raised issues, from boycotts to social media to the political responsibility of the arts.

Neil LaBute, chatting with The Skinny from Canada, got involved with the project through his connections with Theatre Uncut and director Cressida Brown. “I liked the issue they were talking about so it was a natural thing to get involved with,” he says, and LaBute himself has not been unfamiliar to censorship. “Recently there was another censorship evening I wrote a piece for. The venue that was going to host it decided to cancel because of the piece that I wrote and a couple of the speeches that were going to be given. I eventually said I’m going to remove my piece because I would like to see this evening go on, at least somewhere else. They’ve since been given another venue and I think the speeches are going to take place but I did remove my piece from that evening. So that was ironically a kind of censorship during an anti-censorship rally.” LaBute talks of being much more open to the idea of someone not censoring work, but honestly stating, 'I don’t like your piece.' In terms of exploring that within the bounds of Walking the Tightrope, writing for something tangible, he adds: “It’s much easier to concentrate your thoughts, to say, 'Here’s something that has the potential to be controversial but hopefully I’m tackling it in a way that makes if of interest for people, thought provoking rather than just trying to provoke.'” It’s very much about opening a discussion rather than straight censorship of someone’s work. 

Also writing for the project, Omar El-Khairy speaks similarly, stating: “I think freedom of expression is an irreducible right,” but talking further about the responsibilities that freedom of expression comes with. “Everyone has got the right to say and do and make what they choose, and I think that right should be defended, but I don’t necessarily think that extends to supporting the content of whatever’s being made. I think there’s a certain function that within liberal voices and the fetishisation of freedom of expression that extends to not criticising. I think there’s a distinction to be made about someone’s right to say or do, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to me, or whoever, supporting what’s being said. That’s the kind of distinction I would personally make.” 

El-Khairy got involved in the project after its first iteration, wanting to take the questions the project was already asking and “expand them somehow, make it more macro,” instead of focusing in on a very internal discussion taking place within the theatrical world: “There’s a very assumed universalism about generalised liberal response to what we think can and can’t be said. If I wanted to contribute it would be with the intention of trying to disrupt that liberal presumption about certain topics and certain issues.” Very specifically, he talks about the idea that art can change the world: “Being quite honest, I don’t think it does.” Instead it raises questions and forms discussions, challenging if not changing society.  

His piece evolved out of discussions of Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression, exploring “who gets to speak for whom, and where are the lines for offence and what are the justified responses to that.” It examines “narratives around representations of Islam post-9/11 and particularly today. Hopefully a playful piece that unsettles our assumptions around the very poor national narrative we have around Islam and who gets to speak for it, who are the authentic talking heads we roll out. It’s very much that narrative about ‘Good Muslim’ and ‘Bad Muslim’,” as well as the performative aspects that surround these narratives. Although it is not a direct response to a specific incident within the arts, El-Khairy talks about the "false sense that liberal theatre makers and art makers assume; that there’s an unspoken bond, a kind of shared moral compass. I think they kind of arrogantly occlude the power dynamics about who gets to speak for whom and the certain privileges for artists generally, but also within that who gets to speak for whom and by whom.” This is what he hopes to challenge. 

LaBute’s piece instead focuses in on a specific moment: namely Exhibit B, a controversial success at last year’s fringe which was then cancelled after moving to the Barbican theatre in London. “It uses the idea of where’s the line in terms of art, what is art,” says LaBute who is “trying to push that boundary as far as I could,” with the piece. “Most of us would say what I’m witnessing is an act of violence, but because the person as an accomplice, a willing assistant and is saying this is what’s in the boundaries, this is my art, this is what I want to say we sit and watch. It then asks the question of how far can we go in the name of art and still be creating something that falls within the confines of that word. Or are there no confines to that word? Is art simply anything I say it is as long as it meets a couple of criteria?” They are interesting questions which may be impossible to answer, but that is what the panel discussions after the performance will aim to tackle. 

Speaking of halted performance in a different sense, both LaBute and El-Khairy spoke of the recent closure of The Arches not as censorship in a traditional sense, but as the silencing of a voice. “It doesn’t seem like censorship to me so much as a kind of bullying or a political move to stop the voice of a place that perhaps they don’t care for,” states LaBute, while El-Khairy talks of the “criminalisation of certain cultures and the way through bureaucracy that they’re closed down.” He links the closure specifically to Form 696, issued to clubs in London asking “what is the music being played and what is the target audience?” and creating a discussion around the “criminalisation of certain black cultures and particular grime music,” similar to how The Arches was targeted for drug use. However, in light of it all, he ends with a lighted hope: “Very much like the traditions of black-British cultural production; there’s always a creative way around it. I’m not excusing what’s happened but the light for me is that there’s always been an imagination and an energy around disrupted cultures to find a way out and a different way of presenting itself. Even though it’s incredibly unfortunate in terms of the space I don’t think that will prevent culture from flourishing.”

Walking The Tightrope, Underbelly Topside, 5th-31st August (not 17th) 3.35pm.