The Edinburgh Fringe tackles Scottish independence

WITH a year to spare, the Edinburgh Fringe is embracing the referendum debate in earnest – and in fun

Rehearsals for 'Preen Back Yer Lugs'. Picture: Contributed

THE year is 2108. Virtually the whole of planet Earth has been laid to waste by global warming, with only Scotland surviving the apocalypse – thanks to its love of wind farms. An evil clone of a celebrated 21st-century Scottish politician is being targeted by a band of English freedom fighters who have risen up against his oppressive rule.

If this all sounds like a pretty dystopian view of how an independent Scotland may have played out after more than a century, that is very much the intention of the team behind Preen Back Yer Lugs, a new Scottish-Finnish play getting its world premiere at the Pleasance.

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It is one of several Fringe shows to tackle the debate over Scotland’s future – and like the others it is set to provide audiences with a lot more than they might have bargained for. Po-faced political debate seems way off the agenda.

Gordon Mcintyre and Hamish Pirie in rehearsals for I'm With The Band. Picture: Contributed

An adaptation of Swedish Uprising, a Finnish play, Preen Back Yer Lugs boasts a largely Scottish cast playing mainly English characters, a Scottish writer, and a director born to a Glasgow mother and Finnish father. It promises to tackle the independence issue head-on, but with tongue remaining firmly in cheek.

Aleksis Meaney, who was raised in Finland, says: “The show is first and foremost an absurd comedy/sci-fi flight of fancy or fantasy but, like all sci-fi and fantasy, it deals with current issues by attempting to show the absurdity of the many preconceptions, attitudes and ethnic divides there are at the moment.

“Basically, we are making fun of all parties concerned. But as well as making a riotous comedy and a satire, we also want to make people think. As I don’t live in Scotland, I felt it was important that we didn’t try to take sides in the debate and hopefully it will be for people who are both for or against independence. For me, the most important thing for art is not to make outright statements, but to put forward questions and encourage the audience to think and to open up a dialogue.”

Actor Billy Mack, a former Fringe First winner, adds: “It’s a show about what it’s like being the ‘wee next-door neighbour’ to the big bully, but this time the ‘big bully’ has a wee twang to his voice.”

A range of voices on the independence issue are expected to be aired as part of Northern Stage’s programme at St Stephen’s in Stockbridge, in The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. Just like Preen Back Yer Lugs, it imagines what might unfold in the 100 years after Scotland wins independence.

Lorne Campbell, the Scot in charge of Northern Stage, the Newcastle-based company that made a huge impact with its debut on the 2012 Fringe, promises a “smorgasbord” of material from artists from either side of the Border – with feet in both the pro and anti-independence camps, as well as a clutch of “don’t knows”.

In a show billed as “part protest, part prophecy, part poetry, part party”, writers, actors and musicians will join forces to create an epic ballad, which varies each night thanks to the changing cast of resident and guest balladeers, and will also gradually evolve by the end of the show’s run.

Campbell, who was born and raised in Edinburgh but has been working in London in recent years, says: “There was just something about the whole unpredictability of the referendum that I wanted to tap into. There is an enormous power in Scotland at the moment with the referendum coming up, particularly over the north of England. I wanted to look at the issue from a British perspective, especially as Edinburgh becomes such a British city at this time of year. Nobody really knows what is going to happen after the independence vote, no matter which way it goes. That thought kind of scares me. Whatever is said and done, we are going to have to live with it afterwards. The two countries are still going to be right beside each other.”

Welsh playwright Tim Price says the “huge impact” he feels Scottish independence would have on the rest of the UK was the main inspiration for I’m With The Band, arguably the most high-profile production on the issue to be staged at the Fringe this year and a show which has already landed a run in London.

The Traverse is hosting the world premiere of the travails of an indie-rock outfit whose members are drawn from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. No prizes for guessing which one sparks a rift in the band with a threat to walk out. “To me, the prospect of Scotland leaving the rest of the country behind was like a band trying to continue after losing its guitarist,” says Price. “That’s where the idea for the show originally came from. I noticed that a lot of the arguments were being characterised as being a two-way thing between Scotland and England, when independence for Scotland would also have a huge impact on Wales and Northern Ireland.

“A lot of the debate has been led by the political elite, but I wanted to look at how Scottish independence would affect people living in all these other parts of the country, and look at things like whether they could end up under permanent Conservative rule.”

Although I’m With The Band has been months in the planning stages, with the added complication of finding four actors-cum-musicians from each part of Britain, another show at the Traverse offers a bang-up-to-date take on the independence debate. The gauntlet has been thrown down to three of Scotland’s leading writers – Rob Drummond, AJ Taudevin and Lewis Hetherington – to produce new short plays as part of the Theatre Uncut season of Monday morning shows, all of which will have been written just a few days earlier.

Emma Callander, co-artistic director of Theatre Uncut, says it is a deliberate attempt to “stir it up a bit” by tackling the issue. “We were initially set up to galvanise debate on ongoing political situations with new theatre works which get people talking and arguing. We’ve given the three writers – who all have completely different and interesting backgrounds – completely free rein on the issue. We felt it was really important to look at the whole independence debate when the festival was on and raise awareness of it internationally.

“We didn’t think there was any point in putting on a show at the Traverse on a Saturday night outwith the festival before an audience who already know what they feel about the issue.”

If you want a lighter look at independence, though, visit Valvona & Crolla, where broadcaster Mark Stephen is stepping into the shoes of Robert Burns to pose the question of how he would vote next year if he had the chance.

Despite Alex Salmond’s insistence that Burns was a nationalist at heart, Stephen – who appears with Gill Bowman as Jean Armour in Robert Burns Votes For Scotland – is not so sure. “Most people would assume that he would automatically vote for independence,” he says, “but that isn’t necessarily the case and there is a considerable argument about what he might have done.”

Twitter: @brianjaffa

• I’m With The Band, Traverse Theatre, various times, until 25 August. Preen Back Yer Lugs, Pleasance Dome, 12.25pm, until 25 August. The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, Northern Stage, 10pm, until 24 August; Theatre Uncut, Traverse Theatre, 10am, 5, 12 & 19 August. Robert Burns Votes For Scotland, Valvona & Crolla, 3pm and 8.30pm, 9, 10, 16-18, 23 and 25-26 August