IT'S THAT time of year again when Edinburgh holds its breath and waits for the biggest arts festival in the world to explode across its streets. The Edinburgh Fringe is a highlight of the year for many socialists and radicals across Britain and, indeed, throughout the world. In these days of mindless musicals and trash 'reality TV', the Fringe offers an opportunity to escape the mass manufactured garbage which so often dominates our culture.
Of course, even the Fringe can't escape the chill winds of fast buck commercialism. The programme for the event seems to get thicker each year as more and more dodgy stand-up comedians pour into Edinburgh. Nevertheless, the Fringe remains a test bed for some interesting and radical productions.
Many of the plays which gain audiences and critical acclaim in Edinburgh find a new life playing in London, or touring across Britain. No one should be surprised by the radical strand that still emerges on the Fringe. Although it began in 1947, the event gained a real political boost from the Edinburgh People's Festival in the early 1950s.
Labour movement activists, particularly members of the Communist Party, were to the fore in organising a programme which aimed at bringing performances with a political edge to working class people in the city.
Significantly, they also produced work that was less obviously political, but belonged to the sort of culture which was so often denied to working people and their families. The People's Festival ended in 1954, but its spirit has lived on ever since in the Fringe.
This year highlights of the Fringe's theatre programme include work by exciting young playwrights grappling with major political issues. The Straits, which plays at the Traverse Theatre from 1 to 23 August, sees Gregory Burke, author of the brilliant play Gagarin Way, trying to get beneath the myths of Britain under Thatcherism.
As a child in the 1980s, Burke spent five years on Gibraltar, where his father worked for the Royal Navy. Using the Falklands War as a backdrop, he explores issues of British identity under Thatcher through the characters of four teenagers living in Gibraltar. Although set on the rock, Burke insists that the play is not about the disputed territory, but about politics in Britain in the 1980s.
Those who like their theatre to be bold and gutsy, as well as politically radical, will be pleased to see the outstanding US ensemble the Riot Group return with a new show, Pugilist Specialist, which satirises the US's so called war on terror.
The company has been justifiably acclaimed for past shows, such as Wreck the Airline Barrier and Victory at the Dirt Palace, which have struck excoriating, brilliantly acted blows against the complacency of bourgeois America and the US media's response to 11 September 2001.
Pugilist Specialist plays at the Pleasance from 31 July to 25 August. Of course, in addition to great new plays, the Fringe has a fine track record of presenting powerful new takes on the classics. The best in recent years was Scottish playwright Liz Lochhead's superb version of Euripides' Medea for Glasgow-based company Theatre Babel. They are back again this year, presenting Thebans, Lochhead's adaptations of Sophocles' stories of Oedipus, Jocasta and Antigone, at the Assembly Rooms from 2 to 24 August.
Expect brilliantly muscular writing which is sharply relevant to our society, culture and politics today.