Mike Quille discusses World War One themes at the Edinburgh Festival

I Am, International Festival *

The War, International Festival **

Forgotten Voices, Fringe Festival ****

Carol Ann Duffy, Book Festival  ****

‘It is the destiny of the artist not to serve those who make history, but to serve those who are its victims’ said Albert Camus. How did some of the WW1-related events at the Edinburgh festivals this year match up to Camus’s prescription?

Let’s start with I Am, a piece of physical theatre from New Zealand which was shown as part of the prestigious, expensive International Festival.

An actor dressed in white is sitting in a chair, holding a rifle. Someone sticks a red card in her mouth. Then others come forward to spit red liquid on her. Behind her, a line of actors dressed in black walk slowly by.

That was just one of a seemingly unending procession of incomprehensible, pretentious tableaux. Over the course of two hours, the show manages to be absurdly incomprehensible (even the handwritten surtitles to the poorly sung musical numbers were impossible to read), slow moving and boring. As in so much so-called ‘high art’, the sensuous experience of ordinary people is airbrushed out of the creative material. The terrible realities of WW1 were lost (sublimated, the director would probably say) in a spiritual haze, a ritualised and idealised interpretation of actual history. ‘Art’ says the director, ‘can remind us of our ability to transform triumphantly without violence and pain.’ Yeah, right, but what about boredom?

No wonder the interval had been cancelled, probably because the constant trickle of walk-outs, some of which were far more dramatic than anything happening on the stage, would have turned into a flood.

The War, directed by Vladimir Pankov, and also part of the International Festival, was slightly better. There were some interesting and novel aspects, such as the tightly organised ensemble acting and the powerful, live singing and music-making. But intellectual and political coherence had again been sacrificed on the altar of aesthetic spectacle. The attempt to suggest that the Trojan wars were some kind of parallel to WW1 was unconvincing, and the disproportionate emphasis given to Russian upper class responses to the war was annoying, given their comparatively comfortable lives.

Forgotten Voices, a Fringe production consisting of dramatised accounts of the War taken from actual oral testimonies, came closer to Camus’s vision. Five actors read from lecterns, backed by a screen showing images from the War. Centre stage, and topping and tailing the production, is a soldier’s wife’s perspective on her experiences at home. On either side are Tommies, telling their stories of dreadful carnage, class conflict in the trenches, grim and bitter soldierly humour, and the still-shocking details of the war. Did you know that white handkerchiefs were banned by the British Army, in case men used them to try to surrender?

Finally Carol Ann Duffy, at the Book Festival, read her moving poem Last Post, which ends

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

Duffy’s mordant wit and melancholy sensibility certainly serve history’s victims well.


Mike Quille covered the Edinburgh Festival for the Morning Star


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