By Keith McKenna
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Edinburgh Festival 2010

This article is over 13 years, 3 months old
It was difficult to miss the Guantanamo installation when arriving at Edinburgh's West End during the festival. Orange-suited figures, hooded and cuffed, were squeezed into various points of St John's Church on Princes Street.
Issue 350

These replicas are regularly joined by orange-suited volunteers. One of the organisers explained that “it was to remind people of Obama’s unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo”.

The notorious prison was also the subject of one of the most powerful and disturbing plays at the Edinburgh Festival. Lidless, by the US writer Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, explores the way the trauma of the torture taking place at the camp feeds its way back into the heart of the US. Alice is a florist who 15 years earlier had been a Guantanamo interrogator. She is determined to forget the terrible things she has done but when her daughter begins to ask questions and there is an encounter with a former inmate her family is thrown into crisis.

Alice finds that she can’t simply reinvent a sanitised version of the past in which she was doing something worthwhile. Instead she finds that she has a great deal in common with her own father’s troubled return from Vietnam. A stylised realism and poetic dialogue intensify the play’s impact – leaving many of the audience in tears.

Documentary drama is still a major way theatre at the festival deals with political issues. Haerry Kim wrote and performed Face, a harrowing testimony of Korean women abducted by the Japanese military during the Second World War.

David Benson’s new play, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, is particularly effective in countering mainstream arguments about the 1988 explosion of PanAm 103. Benson plays a fiercely persuasive Dr Jim Swire, who has waged a long campaign to discover the truth about the explosion over Lockerbie which killed 270 people including his daughter. It has led him to accuse the British and US governments of a cynical cover up and to regard the imprisonment of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi as a shocking miscarriage of justice. Although the play never loses sight of the personal tragedy of these events it also reveals the appalling contempt government has for law and truth.

Soldiers form the largest group whose testimony has been constructed into plays. They give a radically bleaker and more critical picture of the world than is promoted by the long line of generals that seem to forever trail across TV and radio news broadcasts. Anyone thinking of joining the army should be sent to see Monkey Poet’s Welcome to Afghanistan. This dramatic account of Britain’s 19th century war with Afghanistan details the ease with which they initially occupy the country with what was widely considered an unbeatable army. However, as casualties mount, politicians argue that “we won’t win Afghanistan by bayonets alone”. The final retreat comes at a horrific cost to Afghanistan and Britain with the deaths of as many as 16,000 people on a single British convoy to Jalalabad.

The economic crisis finds its way into plays – mostly by mocking bankers. However, for the first time in decades the festival includes productions of Clifford Odets’ 1930s classic, Waiting for Lefty. One production is from Britain, the other from New York. The play takes the form of a union meeting in which fulltime officials argue against strike action, claiming that it is the wrong time, that we now have our man in the White House, that other workers have been defeated, and that it is the idea of troublemaking reds. The union members in the British production jeered and chucked stuff at the officials. The union meeting then cuts to short scenes which dramatise the reasons members want action: the difficulties of paying rent; food prices; a family where a son has joined the army for lack of work; a hospital where healthcare is being cut; and a doctor who is victimised because he is Jewish. The play ends with workers and audience joining in the chant for strike action.

The director of the production from New York points out, “It is the character Edna who gives us the iconic line of the 1930s struggles when she tells her husband Joe to ‘get brass toes on your shoes and know where to kick’.” In 2010 we could do worse than follow Edna’s advice.

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