‘There’s a lot of public empathy for the army right now, but not as much understanding of it,” says Lt Col Gordon Mackenzie, head of engagement for the army in Scotland and lead on the new Army @ the Fringe venue that has been set up at a drill hall in the New Town, with the collaboration of Summerhall.
“Not as many people know family members who serve in the way they used to, and we wear uniforms, which can act as a barrier. We speak in a language people can’t always decipher and we work in places with barbed-wire fences and guards at the gate. We know we’re not always easy to understand.”
Army @ the Fringe is just one initiative aimed at taking the army to the public, and demystifying the job and, frankly, giving an idea of what the public are getting in return for their taxes. It’s a new strand to the Festival which has attracted disdain from some quarters, with eyebrows raised in regard of it being a possible celebration of militarism and an exercise in peacetime propaganda. With Britain’s military actions in the 21st century more closely scrutinised than ever, it appears that the army and a sceptical arts world might be an oil-and-water mix.
It seems an assessment, however, that’s at odds with the history of the Festival itself. While it’s true that the Edinburgh International Festival – and by extension, the Fringe – was established as a vehicle for peace after the Second World War, the one thing which might have united those involved across the class spectrum of the time was military service. One of the biggest Fringe hits of recent times, meanwhile, was Black Watch, a play which dealt with contemporary warfare in a manner which largely junked politics in favour of looking at the men involved.
“I don’t think the criticism stands up against the programme of work we have at the Army @ the Fringe venue,” says Verity Leigh of Summerhall. “It all directly relates to the human beings behind the uniforms, including work dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, experience of life-changing physical and mental injuries, and work by contemporary artists looking back at their relatives’ experiences in 20th century wars.
“It offers an insight into a way of life and experiences which civilians wouldn’t usually be able to access or even try to understand. People from our communities have joined and will continue to join the army, and I’m not sure why their stories should be off limits for us as theatre-makers or as a society.”
The initial idea for Army @ the Fringe came from the revival of the Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers, a dance piece looking at the physicality of soldiering itself and the impact of injury. When Leigh found out that the show – which was created with insight from the army – was going to be restaged this year in the drill hall now being used for Army @ the Fringe, she agreed to include it in the Summerhall brochure. With Summerhall already offering an offsite programme and there being a surplus of work for their venue space, she realised that all those with a military theme might work in this new venue.
“In 2007, I had a vivid dream following a career-threatening knee operation, where I was lying on a desert battlefield and my left leg was blown off,” says Rosie Kay, creator and choreographer of 5 Soldiers. “Limping downstairs, putting on the TV and seeing the faces of young people killed in Iraq, I wondered what kind of training prepares you for literally risking life and limb for your job. Dancing can feel pretty risky sometimes – it’s hard physical work, and injury can destroy not just your livelihood, but also your passion and your identity. I wondered if soldiers felt the same about their profession.”
Her research involved time with an infantry battalion and a rehabilitation centre.
“This meant I joined in some extreme experiences, and I saw some devastating things which really affected me,” she says. “I also saw how proud and determined individuals and teams were in helping people recover. Soldiers who have seen the work have been overwhelmed, veterans have said it helped them open up and talk about experiences with their family and friends, and a wife of a serving soldier told us she finally understood why her husband didn’t talk about operations.”
She believes the stage is as good a place as any to discuss such things. “We need to talk about what society asks of its soldiers. Arguments can become polarised between victims and heroes, and reality is very different – the army aren’t separate from civilians, and in peacetime, we need to have these discussions or we risk ignoring an important aspect of recent British history. We can’t afford to only see issues about conflict through the lens of the mass media and the news, we all have a responsibility in society to look soberly, clearly and unsentimentally at this.”
One important point all seem keen to stress is that Army @ the Fringe offers a programme that isn’t prescribed or censored by the army, and which features honest responses to the issues from the creators involved. Shifting the focus on uniformed professionals slightly, Stand By will see audiences listen in to four riot cops in a van through earpieces.
“It’s a tense drama with some very funny, frank dialogue,” says director Joe Douglas. “Current and former cops we’ve shown it to say they recognise the intimacy of the relationships, and with police officers forbidden to unionise, it seems important to give voice to some of their concerns. Stories about the police are unusual in the theatre but very popular in virtually every other medium, and if theatre does anything it brings people together, regardless of where or who that is.”
The Last Post, meanwhile, sees Tom Poulson bring the letters his grandfather Dennis Marshall wrote to his fiancée during the Second World War to life.
“For me, the most striking aspect is Dennis’s focus on the every day,” says Poulson. “He comments on the darker experiences of his service, but he puts particular emphasis on his longing for home, to be with his fiancée and to return to his job as an English teacher.
“My grandfather was a socialist pacifist, but while disagreeing with any form of warfare he felt it was his duty to serve his country. He worked as a signaller and never fired a weapon throughout the war, even when caught in conflict. Ours isn’t a military story, but a human story in a military context, and sadly there’s still conflict around the world which we’re all connected to in one way or another. We hope this work will remind us all of our shared humanity.”