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Politics and Protest on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award 2015

Two weeks ago I was asked to appear on a radio programme to talk about political theatre on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. On Saturday morning I picked up a copy of a London broadsheet to find a regular columnist asking where all the political plays were in Edinburgh. Somewhere inbetween I have been attempting to help judge this year's Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow during a ceremony at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

Founded more than a decade ago as the U Win Tin Award, named after the imprisoned Chinese dissident, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is designed to honour the best show on the Fringe that highlights human rights in a way that puts artistic merit on a par with the particular issue it is focusing on. So, previous winners such Roadkill, which looked at sex trafficking in a production performed in a flat off Leith Walk, Nirbhayer, Yael Farber's devastating study of sexual violence against women in India, and the 2014 winner, Cuckooed, in which Mark Thomas dissected the erosion of privacy, were all major pieces of theatrical artistry that accentuated the points they were making while making for riveting viewing.

This year, some eighty-five shows have been long-listed for the Award. Given that there are some 3000 shows on this year's Fringe this may not sound much. Such a relatively high number of nominees nevertheless points up the fact that, beyond all the noise and the hype of TV names, and beyond the carnivalesque clamour on the packed city centre streets, there are some very serious things indeed going on in Edinburgh.

This has been fascinating to watch over the last decade, as the handful of entrants for the award in an age we were told was post political gradually morphed into a deluge of work that mirrored the abuses and injustices that were occurring in a wider society, both abroad and dangerously close to home. As a younger generation has become politicised through the Occupy movement in an age of austerity where democratic processes don't seem to mean much anymore, so politically engaged theatre has increased.

As I pointed out on the radio, that engagement by theatre-makers with politics – and, as most people must surely realise, all theatre is political, whichever way it swings – is a whole lot different from the nature of some work produced twenty years ago. While just as passionate as work of yore, the aesthetic has become both more direct and more to do with first-hand experience than mere polemic, with issues of gender, mental health and gentrification all on the agenda this year using a variety of different forms married to content.

Yet quantity alone isn't a badge of honour, however well-meaning a surge of worthy theatrical activity might be. Just because a show is politically inclined doesn't make it automatically eligible for the Amnesty International award. The definition of how something addresses human rights too is too fluid to be set in stone in such complex times.

As every single one of the winning shows has proven, it is perfectly possible, and indeed essential, to say important things through art and theatre in a way that will engage the senses emotionally as much as politically.

As I pointed out two years ago, there is a danger with an award such as the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award that it might end up looking like a league table, and that one issue suddenly becomes more important than another.

That isn't the case. Every issue raised, and every piece of work short-listed are as significant as each other.

This year the Amnesty award arrives on the back of several incidents over the last year when voices on the Fringe itself have been forced to remain silent. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it highlights the power art has and has always had to provoke debate. The Amnesty award remains at the centre of those debates.

The only bad thing about the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is that it needs to exist at all. If there were no sex traffickers, if activists weren't imprisoned for their beliefs and if free speech wasn't being stamped out by oppressive regimes in the UK and further afield every single day, the award and Amnesty International wouldn't need to highlight such crimes against humanity in the way that they do. In an ideal world, none of this would be necessary. But this isn't an ideal world, and until it is, the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award will remain as vital as it has been since its inception.

Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award is presented on Aug 26.

The Herald, August 25th 2015


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