Although there are literally thousands of shows on during the festival season in Edinburgh, many of the plays, films and exhibitions I went to were disappointing, in the shallowness of either their politics or aesthetics – or both.
Given the open if undeclared class war being waged by the ruling classes across the UK, and the energising effect of the referendum debate on Scottish politics in particular, there should have been more in the way of artistic critique, protest and alternative imaginings. Theatre in particular seems strangely flat these days, unwilling to ‘stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality’, as Brecht said.
Perhaps, given the political apathy in the general population, no more should be expected from artists? And yet this seems especially sad when you see examples of good political theatre.
Blood Orange, a classic piece of agitprop brought to Edinburgh by Electric Theatre Company, is based on real life recent events in Dumfries, when the Scottish Defence League attempted to march and mobilise support.
In the play, a young man’s grief for his mother and the loss of their family shop is manipulated by a shadowy, skinhead into racist violence, with tragic results. The play successfully combines a strong political message, exuberantly expressed in poetic writing and great ensemble acting, and presented within the brilliantly appropriate, crazed visual and sonic aesthetic of clubbing. It is dazing, dazzling, challenging theatre. The show could and should be shown anywhere in the UK as a wake-up call to the dangers of far right mobilisation of alienated working class youth.
Confirmation, a one man show by writer-performer Chris Thorpe, worked quite differently but was equally effective. Based on the psychological theory of confirmation bias, by which we tend to interpret the world in ways which reinforce our convictions, it explores what happens when liberal, tolerant attitudes come up against right wing extremism.
Thorpe and director Rachel Chavkin dramatise the resulting conflict in an innovative and exciting way, by involving us in a mixture of role playing, thought experiments, and Q and A sessions. These are all delivered passionately, even aggressively by Thorpe, lurching violently round the central stage, whipping the microphone lead around and confronting himself, his imagined political opponents and us, like a boxer in a ring.
Through a dramatised dialogue with a white supremacist and Holocaust denier, Thorpe negotiates his and our way into the psychology of engagement with far right opinions, and the cautionary need to keep our core values whilst being aware of our natural bias. It is a genuinely unpredictable, intimidating and daring performance, and ultimately both intellectually enlightening and entertaining.
Both shows plaited ideas and action, form and content, brilliantly. Unlike many other shows at the Festivals this year, they were good examples of another of Brecht’s dictums, that ‘theatre must teach all the pleasures and joys of discovery, and all the feelings of triumph associated with liberation.’
Mike Quille covered the Edinburgh Festival for the Morning Star