THE BIGGEST threat to freedom of expression in Britain today is not the shadow of the law, but whispers behind the scenes. Not the courtroom so much as a slippery excuse from someone in authority that says, I’m so sorry but we can’t put this on, because of this or that or the other dog-ate-my-homework reason. The fear of protests; the wrong kind of attention, a storm on social media. Trouble with the venue, the risk assessor, the insurance adviser, the head of college. These nebulous fears are recast politely as “it doesn’t quite fit in with our programme this year,’ or ‘ we don’t think it will sell enough tickets”, or “I’m sorry, we are already full.”
This was what I argued when, at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I took part in a panel discussion after a show about the tension between art and politics, inspired by a trio of called-off productions in 2014, called “Walking the Tightrope” staged by Underbelly Productions.
This piece, eight short plays followed by a debate, was inspired by three events in 2014: an Israeli theatre group was forced out of the Fringe by protests; the Barbican pulled ‘Exhibit B’ a show about colonialism by a white author which got five-star reviews at Edinburgh; and the Jewish Film Festival was cancelled at the Tricycle Theatre in a row about Israeli funding. (I wrote about the first of these, in the Scottish Review and on my blog: http://www.jackiekemp.scot/index.php/columns/455-israeli-performers-and-the-edinburgh-festival-a-personal-view )
The 2015 Edinburgh Festivals seemed shorter on controversy. A few things made the news, for example: the Independent’s reviewer David Lister lamented the absence of Scottish political theatre.
Comedian Kate Smurthwaite got a whole Fringe show out of having an invitation to appear at Goldsmith’s College in London withdrawn, turning twitter abuse and allegations she faced of opposing sex work and being Islamaphobic into material for her well-attended free show “The Wrong Sort of Feminist”.
Self-styled Dr Death, pro-euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke had a visit from the boys in blue, but only to ensure that actual lethal gas was not being used in the suicide machine that he was demonstrating on tipsy audience volunteers at a late-night ‘comedy’ described by a Telegraph reviewer as ‘witlessly infantile”.
Some Palestinian artists brought to Edinburgh by a kickstarter fundraising campaign started by David Greig last year took part in an unrehearsed collaboration with performers from across the Middle East called "Here is the News From Over There." "Chaotic," said one reviewer. "And not always in a good way." (http://playstosee.com/here-is-the-news-from-over-there/)
Meanwhile, back at the Underbelly’s Topside venue, Walking the Tightrope’s post-show debates featured discussions between a succession of people who might have been seen as opponents in last year’s divisions. Director Cressida Brown created the event out of a desire to get the energy around this issue into a theatre instead of on social media. “I wanted to replace this war of protests and these warring tweets and have these people share the same space as audience, to listen to and then discuss their point of view with their online opponents.”
At one of the debates, the new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan joined his predecessor Jonathan Mills to defend the right of artists to perform unmolested by crowds of protestors. (http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/arts/news/police-urged-to-ensure-festival-shows-defy-protest-1-3863353)
But despite these declarations, entering ‘Israel’ into the EIF search engine this year produced only Israel Galvan, the Flamenco dancer. Middle East news source Haaretz reported that for the first time in many years there was no Israeli show at the Fringe (http://www.haaretz.com/life/music-theater/.premium-1.673096). There were just a few individual performers with Israeli backgrounds such as Rachel Frenkel, a pellucid Cherubino in the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s delightful Marriage of Figaro at the Festival Theatre. And although the controversial figure Valery Gergiev, the Russian composer and Putin supporter who presented medals at the winter Olympics, conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, there appeared to be no shows funded by the Russian Federation this year.
One of the plays specially commissioned for Walking the Tightrope in Edinburgh was an examination of Muslim theology in five minutes 'Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" by Omar El-Khairy. It could potentially have been seen as a a rabble-rouser but there were no protests, although it was performed yards from Edinburgh's Central Mosque. But another of El-Khairy's plays, ‘Homegrown’, was suddenly pulled by the National Youth Theatre just as “Walking the Tightrope’ opened.
The pulling of El-Khairy’s show with the ‘explanation’ being given that it was done for “quality reasons”, chimed beautifully with another of the ‘Walking the Tightrope’ pieces by Ryan Craig. This was a monologue by an increasingly angry and frustrated director played by Julian Stolzenberg who has supposedly come on stage to tell the audience why a show has been pulled at the last minute. Although the fictional play, by a Jewish author, who used his aunt's typewriter despite her racist views, was ‘pretentious crap’ he believes they should have stood by it. “We didn’t used to be like this” he concludes sadly before asking the audience to “Please Forgive Us Whoever You Are.”
Tim Fountain’s piece “Beyond the Fringe” in which a mother and son argue about the merits of the picket of the Israeli show last summer takes a surreal twist when the son dons a golliwog suit and is chased around the stage by his mother. “Tickets Are Now On Sale” by Caryl Churchill plays cleverly with the idea that cultural sponsorship turns theatre into propaganda.
Dramatically, the strongest piece may be Mark Ravenhill’s “What Are We Going To Do About Harry?” In his few minutes, Ravenhill creates two believable characters, brought to life by actresses Naomi Ackie and Melissa Woodbridge, cast as a theatre director and a rich sponsor fighting it about about whether Woodbridge’s son Harry should get to be an intern. It seems more than a theatrical debating point and perhaps because of its nuance it didn’t feature in the discussion at the end. Both women - the director mouthing policy and the sponsor desperate to buy more privilege for her son - seem equally flawed.
The role of the actor is examined in a piece about Exhibit B, “Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan”. Exhibit B was set up as an exhibition for one viewer at a time where the 'exhibits' were black actors in chains and cages. In this piece, a young black woman auditions for a role in Exhibit B with a white producer who knows little about the context of the piece, a set-up which makes for a one-sided analysis of it. The text seems to scorn the notion that emotion can be conveyed without words and yet actress Naomi Ackie in the role seems to demonstrate otherwise with her skillful performance. I felt that there may have been more to Exhibit B than this piece allowed. The Scotsman’s theatre critic Joyce McMillan found it moving in 2014 and she returned to it again recently, writing that she thinks about it every time she sees the silent faces of migrants on TV. (http://www.scotsman.com/news/joyce-mcmillan-a-challenge-to-common-humanity-1-3753030)
“Exhibit A” by is another reference to Exhibit B, by Neil LaBute. In this Syrus Lowe plays a black artist whose “art” consists of “fucking white bitches in the arse” as “revenge for 300 years of colonialism”. In this piece, Woodbridge lies face down across a table, portraying a drugged student who has signed a consent form in the hope of furthering her career as an artist. She moans as LaBute mimes raping her. It’s a scene that Euripides might have left off stage. Beforehand, the artist character almost pleads with the audience to protest and stop the show, or at the very least to tell him that it’s not art. It’s shocking but on both the occasions that I saw the show the Fringe audience did not speak up but studied their programmes. Everyone seemed to understand that speaking up would be falling into a trap. For me, the piece illustrated two points: one that a lot of art is bad art; and two that it is not always the loudest person at the party who has the most interesting things to say. This piece featured heavily in many of the discussions.
The law defines agreed limits on freedom of expression, limits which are sanctioned by democratic institutions: rape, violence, threats of violence and the old chestnut about shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.
But these are not the main threats to freedom of expression in our time. Within what is allowed under the law, the parameters are being silently narrowed.
A recent article in the New Yorker looked at the way that freedom of expression is shifting ground: once a totem for the left who were fighting battles against the law and the church, it has moved territory and its proponents claim political correctness as the new muzzle. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-hell-you-say It concludes that freedom of expression is a cultural value and that Americans place a particularly high value on it.
As an Edinburgher, I might claim a history of respect for it here too. The Edinburgh Festival and its Fringe began as an expression of the return of artistic freedom after the Second World War. As Linehan pointed out in his appearance at Walking the Tightrope, the Vienna Philharmonic contained 60 members of the Nazi party when it appeared at Edinburgh in 1947. At the same festival, many Jewish artists, such as Artur Schnabel, the great pianist and interpreter of Beethoven who fled Berlin in 1933 for the USA and who had been unable to travel during the war years, also appeared.
Allowing mobs or the threat of mobs orchestrated on social media to set the agenda for the Edinburgh Festival and fringe would be to abandon an important principle and the consequences of that may be far-reaching. The Edinburgh Festival should show Israeli work: a suggestion might be Yael Bartana’s ‘And Europe Will Be Stunned”, a video installation about a fictional reverse-Zionist project to rebuild the Jewish population of Poland; or Guy Ben-ner’s “Stealing Beauty” which chronicles the artist and his family as refugees making themselves at home in Ikea shop displays. Exhibit B too should be shown again but perhaps in the excellent format that Cressida Brown has devised. Scheduled post-show debates offer an outlet for people to share their views in a more creative and constructive way than by attacking each other on the street or on social media. Talking has to start somewhere and it might as well be in the auditorium when the lights go up after the show instead of having everyone rush out and start tapping bile onto their phones.
Over at the Modern Art Gallery an exhibition of the work of MC Escher illustrates the profound importance of perspective; the weird difficulty of holding two viewpoints in the mind at once. His painstakingly-constructed tesellated patterns showing interlocking images are lessons in breaking out of closed categories. One way, black swans are flying over fields, another way it’s white swans. It’s impossible to see both at the same time. But one can at least acknowledge that both are there.
At the Book Festival, Professor Erik Swyngedouw, author of “The Post-Political and it’s Discontents” told a heavily-bearded audience that the old categories of nationality, race, class and gender around which politics were organised in the 19th and 20th centuries are dead. He said that any attempt to build a better world now needs to move beyond them, with a paradigm shift.
Breaking out of closed categories, seeing the other perspective, is what the language of art and culture enables us to do. It is essentially what freedom of expression is for, and it is the raison d’etre of the Edinburgh festivals.
This is a work in progress. If we are spared, as they say in these parts, then next year in Edinburgh, to quote writer Robert Kemp (my grandfather) for whom the reemergence of culture at the 1947 Edinburgh Festival was one of the brightest moments of his life: “The old city will be floodlit, in her streets strange tongues will be heard. Great artists will weave their spells, and we shall gladly submit to their enchantment. We will be able to share again, in some of the most glorious creations of the human spirit.”