Leon Trotsky argued that cultural creations, whether they be novels, paintings or plays, should be considered first in terms of what he called ‘the laws of art’, rather than simply ‘the laws of politics’. This is a lesson which should be learned by a number of writers and companies who brought work to this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The aftermath of 9/11 and the US’s ongoing ‘war on terror’ were, unsurprisingly, major themes in many of the plays. However, the quality of the work was massively variable. Some pieces were little more than one-dimensional polemics, and would have been better written as pamphlets than plays. Others grasped the central importance of aesthetic sophistication in the making of powerful political theatre.
The best of the anti-war theatre by some distance was Pugilist Specialist, the latest work by acclaimed young American ensemble The Riot Group. The company has already had sell-out audiences, and picked up a clutch of awards, for their 1999 play Wreck the Airline Barrier and last year’s brilliant satire of the US news media’s response to 9/11, Victory at the Dirt Palace.
This summer they blew audiences and critics away with Pugilist Specialist, a wonderfully complex, satirically revolutionary image of a US marines ‘black operation’ to assassinate a key figure in Bush’s so called ‘axis of evil’. From the very first lines of the play, when female marine Lieutenant Stein peels away at her role as ‘military spokesmodel’, we know that we are getting more than a standard left wing demonisation of the US invasion forces.
Writer Adriano Shaplin (who also plays the part of repressed, seemingly ultra-macho Lieutenant Freud) has created a carefully and densely written political comedy which excavates, among other things, questions of gender, race, obedience, deception and personal motivation within the US military. US history and literature form a subtle and intelligent backdrop as personal and political schisms begin to develop within the assassination squad. Shaplin has set his drama up perfectly for his searing final comment on US imperialism’s profound need for enemies.
The good news for socialists and anti-war activists is that a British tour of Pugilist Specialist, from Brighton to Glasgow, and many places in between, is currently being planned. No one who likes to see superbly written, beautifully acted radical theatre should miss the opportunity to experience one of the most talented ensembles and one of the genuinely great writers working in theatre today.
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