Amnesty theatre award celebrates voices  of unheard

This year's winner A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, starring Aoife Duffin, is an exquisite solo drama. Picture: Contributed
This year's winner A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, starring Aoife Duffin, is an exquisite solo drama. Picture: Contributed
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THE ANNUAL award recognises compelling and brilliant work with human rights at its heart, writes Joyce McMillan

Ask the average ­member of the British public what the Edinburgh Fringe is all about and they’ll probably tell you it’s some kind of giant comedy festival, where BBC producers go to find the next wave of laugh-a-minute broadcasting talent; or that it involves a lot of street theatre, with clowns and unicycles.

It’s more than a decade, though, since Amnesty International in Scotland started to look behind the image that dominates the Fringe’s media profile, and to celebrate a less obvious but even more vital aspect of the Fringe – the power of this huge, unprogrammed festival, attracting artists from all over the world, to offer a voice to those previously unheard and an arena in which stories once excluded from our shared ­culture can suddenly find an eager, ­listening audience.

First named in honour of the late Burmese dissident U Win Tin, the award created by Amnesty Scotland is now known simply as the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, given each year to an outstanding piece of Fringe theatre with a strong human rights message, either overt or implicit.

Past winners include the great anti-death-penalty show The Exonerated, Judith Thompson’s bold Iraq War trilogy The Palace Of The End, and Yael Farber’s stunning Nirbhaya, a theatrical response to the terrible Delhi rape case of 2012.

And this year’s shortlist, announced on Tuesday, ranges across current human rights flashpoints from everyday racism in Britain and the United States, to the ongoing ­struggle to achieve full equal rights for transgender people everywhere.

Atiha Sen Gupta’s Counting Stars, at Assembly George Square, captures the acute dangers of racial violence and workplace exploitation facing illegal migrants in the UK.

Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ’Til You Make It, at the Traverse, is a hugely popular first-hand account of Grayburn’s struggle to deal with mental illness, in a society where men still rarely talk about 
me­ntal problems.

Labels and Tar Baby – by Joe Sellman-Leava at the Pleasance Courtyard, and Desiree Burch at the Gilded Ballooon respectively – are both monologues that take very ­different approaches, one beautifully disciplined and restrained, one hugely ambitious and flamboyant, to exposing everyday racism in Britain and the US now.

Smash It Up, by Mr & Mrs Clark at Summerhall, explores vital questions about who owns our public urban spaces and who has the right to destroy public art that expresses our shared history.

Paul Lucas Productions’ powerful verbatim show Trans Scripts, performed at the Pleasance Courtyard by a cast of six glorious women, leads a series of shows on this year’s Fringe that explore the experiences of transgender people everywhere. And this year’s winner, announced at the City Arts Centre last night, is A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing at the Traverse. A truly exquisite solo drama, it is presented by Corn Exchange of Dublin and based on Eamear McBride’s acclaimed 2013 novel that chronicles the acute damage done by child abuse, in a situation where the abused child simply cannot be heard until it is too late.

“This impressive shortlist is a true reflection of the themes woven through this year’s Fringe,” said Amnesty Scotland’s programme director Nicola McAuliffe, “and they also hold a mirror to the political confusion and the erosion of basic rights and freedoms, that we are witnessing here in the UK and around the world.”

As she went on to point out, though, at the Amnesty Award, it’s not only about human rights, but about the capturing of human rights issues through some of the greatest, most searching theatre on the Fringe; which is why these shows are not only among the most passionate and purposeful, but also among the most brilliant, compelling and enthralling.

• Joyce McMillan is one of six judges of the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. This year’s winner, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, runs at the Traverse Theatre until 30 August; times vary.