Eye to the future at the end of the line for Edinburgh Festival 2008

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's festival blog

Ah, the end of the Fringe. Goodbye rain. Goodbye bright-eyed young hopefuls thrusting flyers. Goodbye posh accents. How was it for you?

Depending on who you talk to, plays this year have been too bleak/political/teenage. Given the gloomy political and economic situation, as well as the more locally-oppressive Comedy Festival, perhaps playwrights are taking on the responsibility for actually depicting the world as it is. The comedians, of course, would argue that laughter is as valid a reaction as despair (cue: undeveloped link to Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight), but if the Fringe’s assessment of the world is correct, there really doesn’t seem like much to laugh about. Neither could we say that theatre was optimistic about our potential saviours: the young. Perhaps the reason for the sensational success of Once and For All…. was that it offered a positive and exuberant flipside to the teen traumas on offer in Class Enemy, The Bird and The Bee, Free Outgoing and the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest flagship production, 365. If we’re hoping that the next generation will grow up to solve the environmental crisis, world poverty and endless war, they’ll first have to deal with the litany of damage playwrights think they’re inflicted with.

Free Outgoing, by Anupama Chandrasekhar, asks questions, for example, about what happens to young people caught beneath an onslaught of internet porn. Deepa, a girl from Tamil in India, videos herself on her phone, to disastrous consequences. You can guess. Previous generations of playwrights fretted about the AIDS virus as the dark flipside of sex. Now it’s the viral nature of images, tearing instantly through the culture, destroying us. The ubiquity of these images not only instigates porn-like behaviour in young women in the first place, Chandrasekha argues, but takes control away from them after the fact. A conservative Indian community rounds on Deepa’s family, forcing her mother (an excellent Lolita Chakrabarti) towards ever-more desperate measures. That Deepa remains absent from the play means we are forced to examine the effects created around her, rather than within her. This is a powerful and thought-provoking play, which presents a complex take on sex as an interface between East and West, but it seems to hedge its bets too heavily. While an enlightened audience will despair at the crushing of a young woman’s healthy sexuality by conservativism, Deepa’s eventual condemnation by her own mother might strike a chord with that same tradition. Society and, indeed, the boy who first transmitted the images both go relatively unpunished. Or perhaps this is the point: it was always thus. Are dangerously commodifying Western images responsible for Deepa’s demise? Or is it an Indian culture horrified by female sexuality? The play remains ambivalent, and perhaps this is its strength. But the call to see Deepa vindicated by the end was frustratingly unheeded.

365 – the most anticipated play of the Festival – not only refused to give answers, but saw even the raising of questions as outwith its remit. David Harrower’s script about children leaving care, given a spectacular production by the National Theatre of Scotland, presented an impressionistic collage of damaged stories, entirely free of polemic, and all the better for it. Its huge cast of teens are angry, scared, confused, abused and abusive all at once, and the play’s restless, ever-shifting set – at one turn stark and minimalist, at another fairy-tale gothic – is itself the unstable plane of their collective rage. Calls by some critics for a more urgent, social-realist mode are missing the point. True, these youths have brutal lives, which the National Theatre’s lavish production could be said to prettify, but this falls into a dangerous precept about the way that marginalised lives are presented. If we presume social realism to be the only mode for depicting oppressed lives, then we start to make beauty itself the province of the privileged. If we accept that the stories of those at the margins of society have as much vitality as those at the centre, then there must be equal degrees of imagination involved in telling them. To castigate the National’s production for its ‘aestheticisation’ of unpretty lives is to fall into a determinism about aesthetics itself: that it belongs to ‘us’ not ‘them’. Such arrogation of property is surely part of the problem in the first place.

Similarly, narrative cohesion is eschewed in favour of the raw flashes of their story which each character spits out. These take in pyromania, sexual cruelty, rootlessness and abandonment, a cavalcade of pain best emphasised when the cast line-up before the audience and fire their personalities at us like bullets. Softness is supplied by balletic dance routines and Paul Buchanan’s affecting theme song. It all ends after two exhausting hours in a moment of pathos so beautiful, so haunting in its message, that all resistance to this play dissolves. 365 is wonderful and necessary, and proves yet again that the National Theatre of Scotland can take stories from anywhere within its constitutuency and transform them into searing pieces of theatre.

The future – finally – is bright. Just try telling that to the kids.