Thursday, 13 August 2015

Walking The Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics

When the young Israeli theatre company, Incubator Theatre, brought their show, The City, to Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, it became the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons. This had little to do with the content of the company's retro-styled rap opera, but was more to do with the fact that a small part of the company's funding came from the Israeli government.

Incubator arrived in Edinburgh on the back of a series of ongoing atrocities committed by Israeli forces in occupied Palestine, and calls for sanctions against Israel were at a premium. Incubator managed one show in the face of noisy protests before host venue Underbelly decided to pull the plug on the remainder of the run following advice from Police Scotland.

A month later in London, Exhibit B, created by South African artist Brett Bailey as a discomforting series of tableaux vivants depicting historical scenes of racism using real performers in a 'human zoo' setting was pulled from the Barbican in a similar fashion, with protesters arguing that the show itself was racist. Exhibit B had previously been seen in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival, where it passed off largely without incident.

A year on, and the Underbelly is hosting Walking The Tightrope, a compendium of eight five-minute plays responding directly to notions of censorship and freedom of expression which arose from the experiences of Incubator Theatre, Exhibit B and others. With contributing writers including Caryl Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Mark Ravenhill, Tim Fountain and Neil LaBute, the programme will be followed by a discussion that aims to to engage all sides in meaningful debate.

There's been no real conversation,”says director Cressida Brown, who initiated Walking the Tightrope for her Offstage Theatre company at the London-based Theatre Delicatessen space. “I wasn't around Edinburgh last year, and all I could see was how vicious people were being about it on Twitter, but that's not debate.”

For it's Edinburgh run, Offstage will present Walking The Tightrope in co-production with Underbelly and in association with Theatre Uncut, who Brown has worked with on the company's similarly formatted presentations of hot-off-the-press works responding to issues of the day. As Brown discovered in London, the discussion are as important as the work itself.

One of the challenges of the project is that we don't just get people who have the same opinion,” she says. “Whether they're writers or panellists, we want to get people out of their safety zone and challenge the perceived notion of what is largely seen as being part of a liberal culture.

To be honest, the more I think about it, the more it feels like a social experiment about what happens when you get a group of disparate people with different opinions in the same room. You'd have people one evening rolling round the aisles, and another with people listening to every single word. My pseudo-scientific views on this is that there were large groups of people from one particular community listening really hard to see if there was anything there that they found offensive to them. You also had some people being hypocritical and contradicting themselves depending on which side of the political fence they were on. Someone actually said that you don't protest to stop things.”

For Underbelly co-director Charlie Wood, last year's incident with Incubator was regrettable.

We were expecting a hip hop murder mystery,” he says, “and we didn't see what happened coming at all. Looking back, I'm still not angry with the people who called the boycott in July, and I can totally see their point of view. I agree that what was happening in Gaza was wrong and that there was an incredible argument for a boycott of Israel, but I still feel a level of frustration that at the time there was no opportunity for debate and to hear arguments from both sides. A year on we can explore that.

Of the eight pieces on show, American writer Neil LaBute's Exhibit A is more than just a direct response to the furore over Exhibit B.

I was interested not just in Exhibit B,” LaBute says. “That's a no-brainer. Of course you should be able to see it, and of course you shouldn't be told by people who haven't seen it that you can't see it, but I was more interested in how far art can go. Yes, there's one side to it that says that artists should be able to express themselves in any way they want to, but there's another side where you have to think what the ramifications of that are. Rather than people trying to prevent you from seeing things, what is a more interesting question to me is what is too far, and if there is such a thing as too far.”

The author of Filthy Talk For Troubled Times, In The Company of Men, Fat Pig and Some White Chick is no stranger to controversy.

Just because someone goes to the theatre doesn't necessarily make them the most liberal-minded people,” he says, “and sometimes people don't want to talk because their theatre might get blown up. I don't think my play is going to change people's minds about something in seven minutes, but the great thing about theatre is that someone will also have a different response that opens things up, and that is the place to do these things rather than get into a bar fight or a war.”

For Brown too, Walking The Tightrope offers a place for people to engage with others who they might not necessarily agree with.

People are scared of speaking up,” she says, “because they're worried they'll be challenged and subjected to scorn, but I'm hoping that the more things like Walking The Tightrope happen, the more people will get angry, and hopefully that anger will trickle down into theatre.”

Walking The Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics, Underbelly, Aug 5-31, 3.35pm.

The Herald, August 12th 2015


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