Brian Ferguson: The Fringe tackles censorship

The Incubator Theatre company from Jerusalem perform "The City" a hip hop opera in The Meadows during Fringe 2014. Picture: TSPL
The Incubator Theatre company from Jerusalem perform "The City" a hip hop opera in The Meadows during Fringe 2014. Picture: TSPL
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It is good to see the thorny topic of censorship being tackled at the Festival, writes Brian Ferguson

Yet there was something about the biggest storm that erupted in Edinburgh last summer that left a lingering, unpleasant aftertaste.

Last year’s Fringe was just a few hours old when police were called to maintain order outside one of its major venues.

The pro-Palestine campaigners who were demonstrating against Israeli theatre company Incubator were clear in their intentions from the off. They had warned well in advance about their intention to “disrupt the Fringe” until the hip-hop opera was cancelled because of the company’s state funding.

In the end, just one performance went ahead. Its entire run in Underbelly’s venue was cancelled on safety grounds and an alternative location could not be found.

The company did not go quietly, staging its own dignified demonstrations and speaking out against the treatment of its performers in the city. Many commentators felt the Festival’s long-held reputation as a safe arena for freedom of expression had been tarnished. Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland had to face some very difficult questions about its renowned “open access” policy, and culture secretary Fiona Hyslop found herself at odds with a host of leading Scottish artists who had backed the “cultural boycott” against Israel.

Another Edinburgh show from last summer, Exhibit B, by South African director Brett Bailey, suffered a similar fate, but only after leaving the city, when angry protests over its “human zoo” content forced London’s Barbican arts centre to pull the plug.

None of those who protested in Edinburgh or London last year could have foreseen what would have unfolded in Paris in January when the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came under attack.

But what it is clear is that all of the above threw up complex issues of freedom of expression, acceptable artistic boundaries and censorship.

It is intriguing and heartening to discover they are all to be tackled in Edinburgh this summer, with Underbelly hosting the show Walking the Tightrope, which will feature eight specially commissioned short plays. Whether the production, and the promised after-show discussions, will allow any common ground to be found by last year’s main protagonists will be another matter. But it is already a fascinating prospect.