MANY HAVE feared that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has lost something of its cutting edge as it has grown ever larger. Yet, as this year's festival approached, we began hearing concerns about the number of shows with 11 September related themes. Most of the criticism was directed at the idea that comedians would make jokes about 9-11.
But theatre productions such as the play The Guys, starring US movie actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, also came in for criticism. The two spoke out against attacking Iraq at a press conference at the festival last week.
Robbins directed the excellent film Cradle Will Rock, and Sarandon gave the commentary on the film about the anti-capitalist protest at Seattle, This is What Democracy Looks Like. The arts have stood accused of 'cashing in' on 11 September. However, as Robbins has pointed out, there are plenty of other industries that have tried to profit from the attacks.
US capitalism has cynically created a niche market in patriotic consumerism. What we have seen in Edinburgh's theatres, however, has been a genuine attempt by artists to come to terms with the impact of 9-11. Sarandon and Robbins's play, written by New York-based journalist Anne Nelson, is based upon Nelson's own experience. She was approached by a New York fire captain to help him write eulogies to fellow firefighters who died in the Twin Towers.
The result is an emotive drama about loss and the need for collective grief. Written soon after the events, the piece never really deals with the wider political issues which gave rise to the attacks.
In a very brief moment the journalist character talks about meeting an Argentinian woman whose son had been 'disappeared' by the US-backed junta. The woman had celebrated 9-11 as a blow against 'American imperialists'. Unfortunately that consideration of the US's role in the world is too short-lived.
The play, which also has weaknesses in the writing and structure, is nevertheless a touching piece of theatre about the immense sacrifice of New York's firefighters. A feature film is being made with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia. It was inevitable that The Guys, with its movie- star cast, would generate the most interest of all the 9-11 related plays in Edinburgh. But there have been other pieces which have treated the subject with greater artistic and political insight.
The exciting young US company The Riot Group, who astonished theatre-goers three years ago with their satire of US society Wreck the Airline Barrier, returned with a brilliant play called Victory at the Dirt Palace. The 'dirt palace' of the title is the US TV news industry, and the piece follows the contest for ratings on 9-11 between rival news anchors James Mann and his daughter Kay.
It is brilliantly written, politically intelligent and acted with the sort of force the company's name suggests. Equally fascinating is Steven Berkoff's performance poem Requiem for Ground Zero.
Acted in the powerfully stylised fashion which has become his trademark, the piece shifts between the actor/poet's imaginings of the hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Centre and his consideration of the US and British response. Theatre of this nature is not part of some money-making monster. Rather it carries out a key function of art in helping us to see beyond our own personal experience and view the world in a new way.