Speaking Up for Free Speech

Debate about censorship and freedom of expression raged at last year's Fringe when an Israeli show was cancelled following disruptive protests in Bristo Square. Catherine Love talks to the artists making work in response

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Published 03 Aug 2015

On the Fringe, it can feel as though anything goes. Nudity, swearing, violence – in August, Edinburgh’s stages have it all. But freedom of expression in the theatre remains a live issue. The Lord Chamberlain may have retired his red pen in 1968, but more insidious forms of censorship – from disruptive protests to intrusive corporate sponsorship – regularly threaten to take its place.

The debate flared up again in Edinburgh last summer when The City, a show by government-funded Israeli company Incubator Theatre, was cancelled by Underbelly following protests in Bristo Square. A few days later, London’s Tricycle Theatre decided not to host the Israeli-funded UK Jewish Film Festival, and in September Brett Bailey’s controversial installation Exhibit B – seen in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival – was pulled by the Barbican after accusations of racism. For two months, questions of censorship and freedom of expression were at the eye of a furious storm of debate and indignation.

Now, one year on, director Cressida Brown wants us to talk about it. Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics, a collection of short plays followed by open discussion, is Brown’s response to events last summer. The plays, penned by the likes of Mark Ravenhill, Caryl Churchill and Neil LaBute, are a springboard for conversation, directly inspired by what happened at the Tricycle, Underbelly and the Barbican. “It was a very specific provocation,” Brown explains.

Walking the Tightrope started with a Facebook post. Responding to the UK Jewish Film Festival furore, Brown wrote: “How can the Tricycle be accused of being anti-Semitic?” The response was startling. “I just had an assumption that everyone would agree with me,” recalls Brown, who has a “liberal crowd” on social media. “It turned out people didn’t agree with me and it was the most popular post I think I’ve ever had; it started to escalate into almost 100 comments.”

As Brown quickly discovered, these are divisive issues right across the political spectrum. Trouble is, it’s rarely a case of black and white. The line between freedom of speech and incitement of hatred can be perilously thin, while arts funding and sponsorship is murky territory. “Is BP worse than Israeli funding?” asks Brown. “What constitutes dirty money and where does the buck stop?”

For Tim Fountain, one of the contributors to Walking the Tightrope, the shutting down of shows like The City is “a symbol of mob rule”. He worries that art has lost its right to offend and that we’ve got into a habit of “tiptoeing around” contentious issues. “We have the right to protest,” says Fountain, “but that does not mean the right to actually prevent something from taking place just because you don’t like it.”

Writer Sam Steiner, on the other hand, suggests that “the freedom of speech advocates can be quite bullish”. Dealing less directly with censorship, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, his company Walrus Theatre’s debut show, images a world in which everyone’s speech is constricted. Following a new law, communication is capped at 140 words a day, making every word count. The play shows the legislation’s effects through the lens of one relationship, asking what it means to express ourselves both personally and politically.

“I think the play explores how we censor ourselves personally,” says Steiner. “That reverberates politically, through our unwillingness to stand up for what we mean and what we believe in. The play takes that personal inability to communicate and suggests that that could be the case politically as well.”

Though the fictional law in Lemons applies to everyone, unequal power structures mean that freedom of speech is more vital for some than others. There’s a question, as Steiner puts it, of “who needs words more”. Similar inequalities led playwright David Greig to call for the boycotting of The City and to set up Welcome to the Fringe, a fund for both Palestinian theatre-makers and Israeli artists who want to reject government backing. As he argued at the time, “there is no equality of access to stages” for Israeli and Palestinian theatre-makers.

As well as collaborating with Forest Fringe and the Gate Theatre to bring several young Palestinian artists to Edinburgh this August, Welcome to the Fringe is helping to fund Here is the News from Over There, (Over There is the News from Here), an ambitious international project in Northern Stage’s programme at Summerhall. Taking its lead from the brilliant chaos of The Bloody Great Border Ballad, which saw artists coming together to consider the possibility of Scottish independence two years ago, Here is the News will be staging new stories from across the Middle East in each performance. The project will also have an online life, with each day’s stories released on Twitter in advance. The aim is to create, in the words of Northern Stage’s artistic director Lorne Campbell, “an emotional and political and intellectual space which feels very immediate”.

Campbell makes it clear that Here is the News is not an answer to last summer’s debates, but instead an “invitation” to artists whose voices might not otherwise be heard. “This is not an effort at journalism,” he stresses. “This is not an effort at being completist or balanced or offering all views in a democratic way, it’s the creation of a space and then the amplification of the voices that rush into that space.”

The role of arts organisations, Campbell argues, is to facilitate conversation. “I think dialogue is everything,” he says, suggesting that the Barbican’s downfall with Exhibit B was its reluctance to engage with protestors. “If people politically object or are morally or culturally offended by something, that to me always represents a breakdown of communication.”

Walking the Tightrope is likewise about discussion. Brown describes the plays as “provocations for people to have a talk, have a listen, and then go into the bar and continue those conversations”. Looking back on the project’s London run, Fountain says that the debates, which involve a changing line-up of panellists, “can be very exciting if people are prepared to say what they really believe”. And if they disagree? “That’s part of the fun.”