Radicals Storm the Stage

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Opposition to war was the overarching theme at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Keith McKenna takes a look back at some of the best productions.

When Edinburgh's Theatre Workshop began planning their programme for this year's Edinburgh Festival, the war in Iraq came top of the agenda. Robert Rae, the artistic director, explained, "We had been working with the local community on the show Babylon Burning (Another Lovely War) and we decided to open up the research involved to everyone." As a result the venue's entire programme was crammed with war related exhibitions, plays, speakers from the Stop the War Coalition, and debates.

The epic production of Babylon Burning dramatises recent history in song and sketches. Starting with the statements of the neo-cons, the story follows the experience of one US soldier, Laura, who eventually grows disillusioned with her government and joins the peace movement. The show ends with performers and audience singing "We Shall Overcome". Above us in the scaffolding, city traders continued their business.

This year the number of plays dealing directly with the war in Iraq increased still further. The most successful show in the festival was the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Gregory Burke's Blackwatch, a sometimes funny, often moving account of the Scottish regiment's deployment to the outskirts of Fallujah during the US assault in November 2004.

The audience entered the huge military drill hall where the show is performed to searchlights and sounds of bagpipes reminiscent of the Military Tattoo. The play opens with a dramatisation of Burke's interviews with a small group of soldiers. A powerful theatrical mix of realistic scenes, song and dance weave their account into a broader atmospheric history of a regiment which has been repeatedly used as "cannon fodder".

This was also a year when a number of shows gave voice to Iraqis under occupation. The most powerful of these was New York's Six Figure Theatre company's production of Girl Blog From Iraq: Baghdad Burning. This dramatisation of the web diary of an Iraqi woman, known as Riverbend, took us through the years of occupation, US brutality, and the sheer difficulty of carrying out the most ordinary tasks.

There was some media talk this year about the number of plays dealing with religion, but these were largely variations on the theme of the war. For instance the play Hillary Agonistes presents us with the US in 2009 headed by President Hillary Clinton in which her daughter has converted to Islam. But despite this, Clinton still shifts the country to war and the scapegoating of Muslims. This leads to an attack on a peace march that kills her daughter. The playwright Henry Adams was so enraged by events in the Middle East that he decided to explore the relationship between right wing American Christians and Israel in his play Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5.

The shows coming to the festival from the US have grown increasingly radical. The war is an angry thread running through much of the material. Simon Levy's What I Heard About Iraq uses the words of US and British politicians to expose the lies, hypocrisy and double standards that dragged us into war. Other plays dealt with issues ranging from anti-capitalist resistance, to the struggle of communist workers against Walt Disney in the 1940s.

Significantly this radical content has not been restricted to professional companies. US high schools mounted shows that critically examined the flooding of New Orleans, the Vietnam War and the struggle against all kinds of oppression. In a production of Brecht's adaptation of Antigone, a ruler who repeatedly claims the war is over despite continuing casualties, is overthrown by crowds demanding the soldiers be brought home.

However, one of the most exciting events of the fringe was a production of Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock performed by New Rochelle School New York. This passionate satire is set in Steeltown, USA, where workers are pitched in battle with their boss, the police and the media. A fast paced, funny and well-sung show concluded with performers and audience joining in the moment of union defiance.

There is much at the festival which has nothing significant to say about the world, but the continuing theatrical expressions of opposition to war are helping to revive the confidence and focus of political theatre in Britain that was damaged and disorientated by the working class defeats of the 1980s.