War Takes Centre Stage

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Review of Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Performers at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe have found ways of referring to Iraq in shows ranging from Shakespeare's Macbeth to a musical comedy about school inspectorate Ofsted. There are over 40 plays about war but it is a play about Palestine which has generated the most positive attention.

When the Bulbul Stopped Singing by Raja Shehadeh is the sometimes funny, often shocking account by a Palestinian human rights activist of the 2002 Israeli siege of Ramallah. It details the brutality of the Israelis, the absurdity of the Palestinian Authority and the sheer difficulty of shopping in such circumstances.

Iraq is central to Jonathan Lichtenstein's The Pull of Negative Gravity. A soldier driven to join the army by the economic devastation of Wales returns to his family horrifically injured and haunted by his part in atrocities committed against Iraqis. Cursing the army, he kills himself. Lichtenstein points out that 10 percent of 'coalition' casualties are suicides. He wrote the play after meeting Vietnam veterans working on an oil rig who were still troubled by the events of 30 years ago.

The strongest play at the festival was the St Ursula's Ensemble production of Shirley Laro's A Little Piece of My Heart which dramatises the recollections of American women nurses, a Red Cross worker and a singer sent to the Vietnam War. A number of the nurses - including an anti-war activist - had joined the army to pay off college fees and on the strict understanding that they would not go to Vietnam. They are nevertheless sent and witness the brutality of US troops towards the Vietnamese, and the remarkable resistance of the Vietnamese. The singer is raped by US soldiers. One of the nurses develops tumours as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. They return to America bitter and deeply disturbed by the war.

In the very confident Exadus production of Hair, performers march, tear up draft cards and sing anti Vietnam War slogans. Pictures of the Vietnam victims are projected onto a backscreen. The show ends with a defiant protest song as the current US spending on war appears on the screen.

The Glasgow-based theatre company A Moments Peace mounted a documentary dramatisation of interviews with anti-war activists Michael Berg and Joe Wilding along with accounts of Iraqis imprisoned by the occupation authorities. The director, Catrin Evans, explained that 'after the February demonstration wasn't listened to, I felt that, although I would still protest, theatre also had to push for peace'.

There is a growing tendency to explore the occupation of Iraq through classic Greek drama. Euripides' Trojan Women has proved a particularly popular vehicle for this. All the Trojan men are killed, the town is razed to the ground and the women are distributed among the occupiers as the spoils of victory. The Kincaid Acting Company from Texas carried their banner, 'Trojan Women How Far Have We Come', directly behind the British soldiers marching in the Festival Parade. In the finest production of the show I've seen, West Michigan University wove into the performance quotes from US politicians and soldiers alongside the testimony of women from Fallujah, Palestine and Afghanistan.

The biggest group of war plays concerned the First World War. Many consisted of soldiers in the trenches debating its futility. The poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen reflected on war in No Place for Heroes. The Bristol Old Vic dramatised Michael Morpurgo's children's story Private Peaceful about a 15 year old soldier sentenced to death for failing to follow an order. Sheila Kay explored the viewpoint of working class women of Prestonpans in Sillar and Dirt. It exposed wartime class divisions and a radicalisation among soldiers.

There were political shows that didn't deal directly with Iraq but were still connected to the occupation. In Aliens are Scary the US drills for oil on another planet and comes into conflict with its population. In the musical comedy Ofsted inspectors visit a school that is mounting a musical entitled The War on Iraq in which Bush and Blair sing the duet 'We will do Anything for Oil'.

The resistance to Britain and the US's policies in the Middle East continues to generate a more exciting and engaged theatre.