POLICE should be called in to ensure that artists are able to stage controversial works at the Edinburgh Festival in future, a freedom of speech debate in the city has heard.
Festival figureheads spoke out against “thuggish behaviour” and “strong-arm” tactics which had led to the disruption of shows and cancellation of performances in recent years.
Two Israeli Fringe productions were cancelled last year in the face of protests over the state funding of performers - sparking concerns that a cultural boycott had led to the shows being effectively censored.
Underbelly, one of the venues affected, has responded this month by staging a series of hard-hitting short plays, followed by after-show discussions.
Fergus Linehan, the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, and his predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, joined forces after the latest performance of “Walking the Tightrope”, which is being staged close to the site of last year’s protests, to express concern at the silencing of artists.
Sir Jonathan said there were “very serious questions to be asked” about the forced cancellation of shows.
Mr Linehan said it was “counter-intuitive” for anyone to try to shut down a show. He pointed out the very first EIF in 1947 included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, when it had 60 Nazi party members.
Underbelly was forced to axe Incubator Theatre’s “hip hop opera” The City after just one preview because of disruption caused by more than 100 demonstrators outside the venue.
An open letter signed by more than 50 Scottish cultural figures, including playwright David Greig, Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead and artist Alasdair Gray, had earlier urged Underbelly to cancel. An Israeli dance company also pulled out.
Walking the Tightrope sees eight different writers tackling issues inspired by last year’s controversy, as well as the fall-out to an Edinburgh International Festival show from last year, Exhibit B, which had a subsequent run in London cancelled after its South African director Brett Bailey was accused of racism over its “human zoo” content.
Sir Jonathan, whose reign as EIF director saw pro-Palestine protesters disrupt a number of performances by Israeli artists - said it was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with campaigns whipped up online.
He said: “There’s an enormous amount of misinformation assumption, because of the immediacy and potency of the internet. People take it upon themselves to think they are experts in areas where there is an incredible amount of complexity.
“The technology at our fingertips at the moment is certainly catching the police and other security forces by surprise. They are perhaps slow to react and don’t entirely know how to react. I have great sympathy for the police. They are walking a very fine line.”
Mr Linehan said: “Trying to shut a show down is so counter-intuitive. We are probably emphasising thuggish behaviour on a picket line little a bit too much. I don’t think anyone wants that under any circumstances. We still respect the right of people to protest and picket. The idea that Edinburgh is a place that people can raise these issues is important.”
Tim Fountain, one of the playwrights involved in Walking the Tightrope, said: “There is no police policy as far as I can see. But they are going to have to make that decision as these protests are getting more and more regular. There are more and more voices who want to prevent things from happening.”
Fountain drew a comparison between arts events that had been cancelled in the face of protests and that fact that demonstrations were never allowed to disrupt events like the State Opening of Parliament or Trooping the Colour.