Joyce McMillan: Independence and the Festival

The ambitious show Leaving Planet Earth has lessons for all, including Sir Jonathan Mills. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The ambitious show Leaving Planet Earth has lessons for all, including Sir Jonathan Mills. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Sir Jonathan Mills has sparked a row about independence and the Festival. But we’ll have the last word, writes Joyce McMillan

IF YOU want to catch a glimpse of the fast-changing face of Scotland’s cultural life, you could do a lot worse – any evening between now and 24 August – than to catch one of the fleet of buses leaving the EICC in Morrison Street for the strange and spectacular spaces of the huge Edinburgh International Climbing Arena at Ratho, scene of the spectacular International Festival show Leaving Planet Earth.

Set some decades in the future, when Earth is fast becoming uninhabitable through climate change and the consequent social breakdown, the show is a science-fiction fantasy which casts its audience as one of the last groups of volunteer migrants making the “jump” to New Earth, a distant twin planet which offers humankind a chance of survival. And for two hours, once we reach the strange lunar landscape of our destination, we are put through a series of induction sessions, learning more and more, as we go, about the stress experienced by the very human group of “New Earthers” in charge of this brave new world.

The show has had genuinely mixed reviews, but even those who don’t enjoy it are bound to acknowledge it as a serious, ambitious and vivid attempt to deal with one of the key political anxieties of our time. And it is unequivocally a Scottish-made work, created by the Edinburgh-based Grid Iron with an international cast and a creative team almost entirely born or based here.

Yet to judge by the controversy that has been swirling around the head of the Festival’s director, Jonathan Mills, since he made a few ill-judged remarks last weekend about the likely absence of any shows about Scottish independence from next year’s Festival, a piece of theatre like Leaving Planet Earth barely counts as Scottish work
at all, so narrow and backward-looking are some of the definitions of Scottishness being bandied
about on both sides of the argument.

Jonathan Mills – a man whose brilliant mind is more fast-moving and wide-ranging than steadily analytical – undoubtedly fired the first shot in this phoney war, with his strange implication that to include work about the independence referendum in the 2014 Festival would be to breach some vague rule of political “neutrality” and internationalism, while to celebrate the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and the 100th anniversary of outbreak of the First World War, would be perfectly acceptable.

This was a memorably silly thing to say, and perhaps reflects the widespread, old-fashioned belief, in establishment unionist circles, that anything to do with Scotland – including Scottish nationalism, as opposed to the British variety – is by definition backward-looking, parochial and inferior.

If Sir Jonathan’s remarks were ill-considered, though, it is hard to know where to start in deconstructing the foolishness of some of the arguments deployed by his critics. In the first place, the Edinburgh Festivals now constitute such a vast event, or series of events, sprawling across the city in August, that it is simply not in the power of any Festival director, least of all an outgoing director whose successor has already been appointed, to “ban” or “silence” anyone, or to prevent any discussion from taking place.

Mills might have been wise to have worked harder to ensure that his Festival – unlike the Fringe, the Book Festival, the Festival Of Politics – is not marginalised from the independence debate next summer; but his apparent decision to commission nothing on the subject is more likely to damage the reputation and profile of the International Festival than to have any impact on the debate itself.

Even more importantly, though, the terms of this discussion show little respect for the business of artistic creation, which never follows the lines dictated by everyday politics. The fact that a referendum is taking place next September does not guarantee – as some of Mills’s opponents seem to imagine – that any artist, Scottish-based or otherwise, will want to produce a world-class piece of art about it. And, by the same token, Jonathan Mills’s decision to celebrate two events which were indeed scheduled long before the referendum, the Commonwealth Games and the First World War centenary, hardly guarantees an unequivocal celebration of the greatness of Great Britain.

On the contrary, the literature of the First World War is famous for its bitter condemnation of imperialistic militarism on all sides; and the story of the Commonwealth is an equally complex one, of an old imperial power trying to cling to a family relationship with the countries over which it once ruled, and of a series of long-drawn out independence struggles – political, economic, constitutional and psychological – which are not over yet, and which are closely linked to Scotland’s own independence debate.

Jonathan Mills, who is Australian, clearly sees these links and patterns in the story of national self-determination, even if some of the subtleties of the Scottish debate escape him; his successor Fergus Linehan, who is Irish, will soon bring his own very different perspective to the job. And, as with any festival director or curator, the fundamental argument with both of them should in any case be less about the themes they may try to pursue – always an unruly business in the arts – than about the quality and range of artists they invite and commission.

For if the young artists of Grid Iron had decided to build a debate about national identity into their story for Leaving Planet Earth, there would have been precious little Jonathan Mills could have done about it; and if some of the artists involved in next year’s programme choose to create ringing endorsements of the kind of political independence currently enjoyed by most Commonwealth countries, then Mills will not be able to prevent that either, in the unlikely event that he wants to.

The likelihood is, though, that most artists will, as usual, have their eyes fixed on more distant horizons – not leaving Planet Earth, perhaps, but pursuing their vital job of imagining new worlds in which different questions are asked; and setting Scotland’s referendum in new contexts that may indeed subtly shift its outcome, although in directions that neither Jonathan Mills nor anyone else will be able to control, or even fully predict.