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Edinburgh Festival: theatre that can move the spirit

Drama critic Mark Brown picks his highlights from the theatre at the first week of the Edinburgh Festival

Issue No. 1915

CONSIDERING THAT it is only a few years since some right wing critics were proclaiming the death of political theatre, there is a surprising amount of it at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Of course, the success or failure of a piece of political theatre relies first and foremost on its artistic merits—and there have been some notable disappointments in week one of this festival.

In particular the US satires Fatboy and How to Act Around Cops failed to live up to their promise.

However, there have been a number of plays which have proved that there is much more to political theatre than the agit-prop stereotype which is played up by the right wing.

Jonathan Lichtenstein’s The Pull of Negative Gravity (Traverse Theatre until 28 August) is a powerful example of a drama which moves its audience emotionally.

It provokes us to think politically because it conducts a theatrical dialogue with us.

The play traces the desperate reasons for young Welshman Dai’s decision to join the British army, and follows his return from Iraq, where he has been badly injured in an ambush.

A complex, compelling and angry piece, it boasts a superb central performance from Lee Haven-Jones.

Also at the Traverse (until 28 August), David Greig’s theatre adaptation of the Ramallah diaries of Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh, When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, is a fine production. This monologue has such a brilliant stage set, and is so well acted by Christopher Simon, that it grows into an affecting account of the Israeli oppression of Palestine.

It would be a mistake, however, to simply spend your time at the Fringe seeing the most explicitly political plays.

At its best, theatre gives profound expression to what even an atheist like myself might call “the human spirit”.

Chronicles—A Lamentation (at St Stephen’s until 29 August), by the amazing Teatr Piesn Kozla of Poland, is a deeply moving example.

Combining extraordinary physical movement and superb lighting with the ancient polyphonic song of the Epirus region (which is on the border area of modern-day Greece and Albania), it is one of the most beautiful theatre works I have ever experienced.

Notes from the frontline

POLITICAL SONG is an organic part of struggle. And today it’s alive and kicking. This is the conclusion of the discussion at the Left Field event at the Edinburgh festival this year.

Left Field are known for bringing political debate to festivals.

The audience heard Janice McNair, development officer for the Centre for Political Song based in Glasgow, whose roots are in the folk scene, remind us that political song can be found in all types of music.

Folk singer, writer and activist Alastair Hulett sang about the socialist John Maclean and Red Clydeside.

He showed how strongly Maclean was both anti-war and anti-capitalist, and linked his struggle with ours today.

Bill Speirs, the general secretary of the Scottish TUC, said, “As long as people are fighting to build a better world we’ll sing about it and act on it. Political song is a very long way from being dead.”

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Sat 21 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1915
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