Edinburgh Festival is challenging British Empire mythology that still blights politics in the UK – Joyce McMillan

The claim by right-wing culture warriors that the British Empire was a good one is being challenged by festival plays – in a city largely built on the proceeds of overseas oppression

It’s Tuesday lunchtime, at the heart of the Fringe; and in the Assembly Hall on the Mound, I find myself sitting among hundreds of other theatre-goers, with tears pricking my eyes because a less-than-life-size puppet, on stage, has just been told that his mother has died. His long, stunned silence stretches out to embrace the audience, the old building, the world; the magic of theatre makes his pain indivisible, and part of us all.

The show is the Baxter Theatre of Cape Town’s magnificent new stage version of JM Coetzee’s great 1983 novel, The Life & Times Of Michael K; the story of a poor gardener, isolated all his life because of a hare lip, who sets off on an improbable journey to take his difficult and dying old mother home to the place where she grew up, through a semi-fictional South Africa increasingly torn by civil war.

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And although this show is presented on the Fringe by Assembly Festival, it speaks perfectly to new Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti’s chosen theme for the year, Where Do We Go From Here? The question comes from the title of a book by Martin Luther King, published shortly before his death in 1968; and the answers he offers are chaos or community – either a deep recognition of our common humanity, or the chaos of ever-escalating competition, oppression and violence.

For those of us in the still relatively privileged West, though, the idea of choosing community over chaos, in any meaningful global sense, can involve some huge shifts of perspective, which many people find impossible; and so the next question is whether – in another quote from the EIF programme – we are really willing to reconsider the world from “a perspective that’s not our own”. The current culture wars that rage through British politics, after all – on subjects like immigration, the history of empire, reparations for slavery – are ruthlessly weaponised by the political right as a kind of last-ditch resistance to a changing world by whole swathes of British society, both privileged and working-class, for whom the idea of Britain as a natural leader among nations, and a peculiarly virtuous country whose Empire was a “good” one, has been a vital part of their mental furniture for generations.

And even at a Festival explicitly devoted to challenging such long-held beliefs, it remains easy enough to avoid the point, to spend time on the Fringe seeing dozens of plays with songs about the terrible 21st-century love-lives of young London loft-dwellers living off the bank of mum and dad, or to watch a show like Dark Noon at the EICC – a massive African challenge to the myths about white heroism that fuelled the great age of American westerns – only as a kind of comic spectacle, that transforms the vast space into a studio film set full of cartoon parodies of Western characters.

Yet still, the truth lies elsewhere; for example, in the voices of the Dark Noon actors, telling us, towards the end of the show, what it meant to them as young black children in South Africa to be immersed in a film genre that so relentlessly centred white experience, and glorified the bloody white colonisation of North America.

We can hear it in the voice of the fine English poet Luke Wright, at the Pleasance Dome, plucked from his working-class birth family as a baby, and adopted into middle-class comfort, yet still committed to checking his privilege, and to the simple spiritual discipline of counting his blessings. We can hear it in writer-comedian Mark Thomas’s latest brilliant monologue England & Son at Summerhall, co-written with Ed Edwards, and unflinching in deconstructing the damage passed on from generation to generation by those put into uniform, and given a license to slaughter and brutalise in the name of country and empire.

A satirical cartoon from around 1800 showing John Bull marching off to war (Image by James Gillray/Rischgitz/Getty Images)A satirical cartoon from around 1800 showing John Bull marching off to war (Image by James Gillray/Rischgitz/Getty Images)
A satirical cartoon from around 1800 showing John Bull marching off to war (Image by James Gillray/Rischgitz/Getty Images)

We heard it loud and clear in Dusk, the Comedie de Geneve’s beautiful opening show of the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme; a 21st-century European reworking of the Lars von Trier film Dogville that offered the most profound meditation on whether we can really hear the stories of those “outsiders” whose belonging is always conditional, and who find that the conditions for their acceptance become ever more brutally exploitative, until a rebellion into truth-telling becomes the only option.

And of course, we heard it in The Life & Times Of Michael K, a magnificent story superbly dramatised, about a man on a journey not only to his mother’s birthplace, but towards a sense of resistance and human dignity that makes the previous conditions of his life, as a black man in apartheid South Africa, no longer tolerable or even thinkable.

And like every other place on Earth, Edinburgh has its part in this huge continuing global history of colonisation and its aftermath. Along with Glasgow, London, Bristol and so many others, it is a grand European city built in its modern form on the proceeds of the huge global wealth that poured into western Europe during the great age of empire; and therefore – directly or indirectly – on the enslaved labour which powered much of that colonial enterprise.

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Here in Edinburgh, though, we have this rare chance, once a year – if we are lucky enough to be able to take it – to sit with our eyes and ears open, and hear so many voices of the troubled world our Scottish forebears helped to make, voices so varied that they can sound chaotic, yet the best of them bound together by the beautiful and truth-seeking business of art. And in the end, as today’s right-wing culture warriors should remember, it is that quest for truth, whether comfortable or not, that sets us free; whereas cultures built on big lies, about race, wealth, or national destiny, are only prisons that we build – at first for others, but then finally for ourselves.



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