Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009

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This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe included shows about those involved in political struggle along with a powerful new play from a theatre company campaigning against rendition.

Brian Haw has now camped outside Parliament for over 3,000 days, a constant irritant to a government that knows his protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflects the views of most people in the country. Zia Trench dramatises his story in her play, The State We're In. It centres on the character of Tommy Price - a passionate, witty and fearless critic of the government who refuses to end his protest despite changes in the law, repeated arrest, beatings by the police and even the occasional offer of a government bribe.

But the long years of protest take their toll, ending his marriage to a woman who clearly remains proud of the stand he has taken.

Judith Thomson's play, Palace at the End, gives us the imagined testimony of three people caught up in the attacks on Iraq. The most powerful of these is that of an Iraqi communist, Nehrjas Al-Saffarh, whose husband and eight year old son were tortured and murdered by Saddam's regime at a time when that regime was supported by the US.

Despite having also been tortured herself she insists on opposing US intervention. A pregnant US soldier, Lynndie England, gives racist justifications for her abuse of Iraqi prisoners. In the weakest of the monologues, the dying weapons inspector David Kelly claims that his suicide is a protest against the atrocities of the occupation forces in Iraq.

The campaigning theatre company Iceandfire launched its disturbing verbatim drama, Rendition Monologues. It weaves together the statements of government and judges with the testimony of four citizens of Britain, Canada, Germany and Pakistan who have been subjected to rendition, but never charged with any crime. Their experience follows a pattern of terrifying abduction, transportation from country to country, bizarre interrogation, physical abuse and threats of permanent disappearance, all with the collusion of their home countries.

The British foreign secretary David Miliband is shown cynically evading an interviewer's questions about British complicity and, in words chillingly reminiscent of the language of the Bush years, a spokesman for the Obama administration explains that rendition will continue because they "need to preserve some tools to go after the bad guys".

The human rights organisation Reprieve believes that 80,000 people have either been through or still remain in the unknown number of secret prisons. To campaign against rendition, Iceandfire have created a network of over 400 professional actors who have volunteered to mount productions of Rendition Monologues, at minimal cost, anywhere in the country.

The Belfast theatre company Green Shoot Productions brought to the festival a notorious slice of British prison history in Chronicles of Long Kesh by Martin Lynch. Fast-moving scenes and sharp, often funny dialogue chart a grim story of internment without trial, riots and the struggle for political status. The characters argue desperately about the value of the hunger strike and, as the hunger strikers die, the central character, Oscar, becomes bitterly depressed at a tactic he regards as a mistake.

This is a tremendously physical performance as prisoners exercise, march, are beaten and even dance. Events are often linked by inmates singing soul music that expresses their suffering and their resistance.

The most popular shows on the fringe are comedies, so it is not surprising that theatre should explore the relationship of comedy to power. A Texas company revived Peter Barnes's Red Noses, in which the church of 14th century France gives permission to a monk and his followers to perform humorous plays. When the church hierarchy realise that the humour is critical of the existing power structure they have the performers executed.

A new play from Glasgow, Funny, by Tim Nunn, depicts a British intelligence officer recruiting a stand-up comedian to advise him on comic techniques that might help break down the resistance of prisoners during interrogation.

Both plays remind us that humour can be a weapon in the struggle between those who hold power and the people they oppress.


If you are interested in arranging a performance of Rendition Monologues go to their website.