Independence and the Fringe: David Greig on art and the referendum

On the face of it, there are not many shows at the Fringe that deal with the referendum and its themes. But look again…

[Aye Right How No with Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister is at the Assembly Rooms]

By David Greig

It’s the question every writer dreads. You’ve been chained to the desk for months, years even. You’ve wrestled with every sentence, you’ve carefully nurtured ambiguity of character whilst maintaining clarity of intent. You’ve waded through bags of boggy prose, you’ve flown transcendent on updrafts of inspiration. You’ve killed your darlings and checked for typos and now on the way home from the first-night party, the taxi driver leans back against the glass and says…‘So, this play, what’s it about?’

It just seems so reductive. If I knew what it was about then I wouldn’t need to have written it at all. Can you distil the essence of a whole work of art into a sentence? Is the play ‘about’ its strange and vacillating lead character? Is it about the family struggle against which the plot takes place? Is it about leadership, or theatre or faith? ‘There’s a reason theatres employ publicity people,’ you reflect. ‘I’m just a writer. Publicists are so much better with words.’ And so, as the streetlights strobe across your face, you lean slightly forward and you say: ‘It’s called Hamlet. It’s about a student who can’t make up his mind.’

The tyranny of ‘about’ is felt annually in Edinburgh as the Fringe approaches. This year the comment concerns how many or how few shows are ‘about’ the independence referendum and whether the quantity, or indeed quality, of these shows can tell us something about Scotland at this dramatic moment in our history.

It strikes me as strange to approach politics through this peculiar referential prism. It’s partly to do with the ambiguity of definitions. Would a thriller set in a polling station be ‘about’ the referendum? Or would the referendum be merely a decorative backdrop? Would a poem hymning Assynt be the ‘about’ the referendum? Would a production of Waiting for Godot be ‘about’ the referendum? What if the actor playing Vladimir was Scottish and Estragon English? What if Pozzo was Welsh? And so it goes on. Who decides what a play is really about? The writer? The publicist? The critic?

So what, if anything, can we discern from the advance publicity about the politics at this year’s Fringe? There are certainly a good number of shows which explicitly describe themselves as being independence-related. The standout here is probably Alan Bissett’s crowdfunded The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant which is packing them in already at the Assembly Rooms. This play gained notoriety when Bissett performed an extract at the SNP conference earlier this year. To roars of laughter from delegates he read a scene which mocked the mainstream Scottish media’s overwhelming Unionist leanings. The assembled hacks took umbrage. Cue a swathe of columns and magazine articles savaging Bissett for, amongst other things, being fat. (Which he isn’t. He’s actually surprisingly buff for a Scottish novelist.) But all publicity is good publicity and it will no doubt infuriate his critics that the furore resulted in tickets for The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant selling like hot jam scones.

Another show that caught my eye was the fabulously titled How To Achieve Redemption As A Scot Through The Medium of Braveheart by Rachael Clerke, which is on at Underbelly. In a performance lecture with what sounds like a touch of wit about it, Clerke looks at ‘identity, belonging and machismo’. Three topics worthy of any ‘about’ in Scotland right now.

Looking more widely, there are two shows this year about the mysterious death of Willie Macrae, the SNP politician and anti-nuclear activist found dead in a car on a Highland roadside in 1985. It is not a hitherto well-known story but the dark implications of state violence and conspiracy mean it will surely grab attention this year. George Gunn’s version of the story for the great Caithness company Grey Coast is sure to be quality stuff with Billy Riddoch playing the lead. On the other hand Andy Paterson’s monologue version promises music by the mighty Edinburgh punk prophets Oi Polloi – perhaps the world’s only anarcho-punks who sing in Gaelic. Neither of these plays is ‘about’ the referendum but both are certain going to be viewed through its peculiar intensifying prism.

At the official festival the eye cannot fail to be drawn to Rona Munro’s epic James Plays. This project towers above every other dramatic endeavour at the festival in terms of ambition and scale. The story of three of Scotland’s kings, all members of one enormous dysfunctional family, at a time of social and political upheaval, are The James Plays ‘about’ the referendum? Not on the surface. The James Plays would have been welcome additions to the festival in any year and Munro has been clear that, in her view, these plays give succour to both sides and none in the independence debate. But there’s no question that this epic survey of Scottish history will be fuel for a multitude of late-night political discussions in the trattorias of the Old Town. It’s interesting to reflect that, only months before we vote, The James Plays will immerse the audience for a whole day in a political universe in which Scotland is not only independent but has never known otherwise.

Still, it’s fair to say there are not many plays on the Fringe which explicitly deal with the referendum and its themes. Writing plays is not like writing journalism. It operates on different timescales – sometimes in advance of politics, sometimes behind it. Fiction sometimes functions as a kind of receiver of distant signals from the future. Without knowing it, plays distil themes and ideas before those themes and ideas have become mainstream. The playwright Peter Arnott has pointed out that Scotland wrote its referendum plays in the 1990s. One could argue that recent Scottish work like Black Watch, Dunsinane, Calum’s Road or Glasgow Girls have all reflected, in different ways, the debates on identity and politics which we find threaded through the current discourses on independence today.

I have been involved in campaigning and writing articles about the referendum for months, but if someone asked me to write a play ‘about’ the referendum I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s just not how a play arrives. A play begins, for me, with an unsettled feeling, a sense of matters unresolved. It can take years and years for that grain of psychic sand to acquire enough layers of grit to become the pearl of a play.

Crudely speaking, we can be sure that in five years’ time there’ll be a spate of plays at the Edinburgh Fringe with the referendum as a backdrop. I would bet my last pound that somewhere there’ll be an adaptation of Miss Julie set on the night of the referendum vote. I just don’t know in what currency I’ll pick up my winnings.

Given the vagaries of the artistic process perhaps it’s no surprise that two of the standout referendum shows this year are variety shows mixing discussion, music, poetry and polemic. The extraordinary National Collective have an astonishing line- up for their evening sessions at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Their Yestival caravan has toured Scotland this summer, bringing poetry, politics, song and comedy to village halls from Moffat to Shetland. Now they come to Edinburgh.

Featuring Billy Bragg, Aidan Moffatt and a multitude of other talent, these sessions are going to be rocket- fuelled. Put simply, if you haven’t been to a National Collective session you haven’t experienced the grassroots energy of Yes.

Meanwhile, in St Andrew’s Square, my own show, All Back To Bowie’s, is a ramshackle lunchtime salon with different guests and themes every day. The aim of All Back To Bowie’s is to escape the boo yah politics of hustings. Instead we’ve taken a lighter, more open-ended approach and tried to capture the peculiar intellectual giddiness and breadth of ideas that are circulating in Scotland at the moment. We’ve got the best of Scotland’s thinkers, journalists and writers on our themed panels and with guests like Nicola Sturgeon, Lesley Riddoch, Jim Sillars and Janice Galloway the Bowie yurt is sure to be fizzing with ideas, music, and gossip.

So, is there a lot ‘about’ Independence at this year’s Fringe? Maybe, but the salient point is less to compile an actuarial account of referendum-related shows than to ask who really decides what a show is ‘about’, not the previewers or the artists or the critics but the audience. It will be the audiences who decide what this year’s Fringe will be about and they will bring to shows a mind full of questions, thoughts and feelings about Scottish independence. Independence will be in the Edinburgh air like the smell of hops. It’ll be talked about in bars and cafes. It’ll be in the papers and on Twitter. Productions of Hamlet will be ‘about’ the referendum. Plays by Scots will be ‘about’ the referendum. Plays from England will be ‘about’ the UK. A naked man standing in a field painted blue will somehow manage, in the mind of its viewers, to be ‘about’ the referendum. It seems to me that whether you are a local, a visitor from the rest of the UK, Catalan or Californian, this year’s Edinburgh will be the Festival of Scottish Independence.

All Back To Bowie’s with David Greig and friends, Stand in the Square, 12.20pm, until 24 August. Full line-up at allbacktobowies,

Plays ‘about’ Scottish independence at this year’s festival include:

Spoiling by director Orla O’Loughlin at the Traverse Theatre
David Hayman in The Pitiless Storm at the Assembly Rooms, more info
Aye Right How No with Vladimir McTavish and Keir McAllister at the Assembly Rooms, more info
All Back to Bowie’s, more info
How To Achieve Redemption As A Scot Through The Medium of Braveheart, more info
The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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