Opinion: Censorship on the Fringe

censorThe political situation in the Gaza Strip has dominated the news recently, and there is a substantial variety of reasonable views that reasonable people might have about it. My own views are not, however, my subject here.

As a theater and film critic, I am deeply disturbed – indeed, shocked – by recent news reports that protesters at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have managed to shut down one show and are on the verge of shutting down another, solely because the performers are from Israel. Not only is “The Fringe” the world’s largest arts festival – in 2013 there were 45,464 performances of 2,871 shows, according to its official website – but its whole essential character is to be open, unjuried, and uncensored, described as “the ethos that brought these theatre companies to Edinburgh back in 1947: that the Society was to take no part in vetting the festival’s programme. To this day that policy remains at the core of our festival and we’re proud to include in our programme anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”

Underbelly, who operate the Cow Barn venue at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid Hall, canceled all performances after opening night of The City that were scheduled to be presented through August 25 by Israeli company Incubator Theatre. Although Underbelly makes no mention of this on their own website, they have been widely quoted by the press saying, “The logistics of policing and stewarding the protest around The Reid Hall – and the effect of the disturbance on Underbelly and other venues’ other shows – make it untenable for the show to continue in the Cow Barn, Reid Hall.”


According to The Independent, “Dozens of members of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign showed up to picket the performance, demonstrating against Israel’s policies in Gaza. It is understood that up to 15 other shows were affected by the noise from the protests with some forced to offer refunds. La Karina, which comprises student dancers from Ben Gurion University, is also likely to be met with protests when it opens on 10 August.”

The Herald Scotland quotes Mick Napier, secretary of the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, saying before the cancellation, “… we find that it’s unacceptable that an Israeli state-sponsored cultural event should go ahead at the Edinburgh Fringe. If the artists were unconnected with the Israeli state we would have no issue with them. Our plan is to protest every day and also to use non-violent direct action to prevent it going ahead.”

The show is not political. Incubator describes it on their website as “Humphrey Bogart meets Jay-Z in a gritty and darkly comic whodunit hip-hop opera.” It is “state-sponsored” only in the sense that the theater troupe receives arts grants from their government. Essentially, this is a “heckler’s veto” where free speech at the world’s premier unjuried and uncensored arts festival is shut down by illegal coercive censorship, here euphemistically called “direct action.”

The Israeli troupe posted this statement on their web site: “Incubator Theatre would like to thank Underbelly staff, the Police and members of the public for their help in ensuring that the performance of The City on Wednesday 30 July went ahead as planned. Unfortunately, the demonstration that took place alongside the performance was carefully designed to cause maximum disruption to artists and audiences in surrounding venues and to intimidate members of the public. Due to the behaviour of the demonstrators, we appreciate the need to curtail performances at Underbelly Cow Barn but hope an alternative venue can be found to enable performances to go ahead as soon as possible. Please keep checking our website for updates.”

The logistical difficulties facing the venue operator are understandable, but what is utterly indefensible is that the move to silence artists was publicly supported in what The Stage News reports as “an open letter from more than 50 Scottish cultural figures, including the Makar [Scotland’s poet laureate] Liz Lochhead, playwright David Greig and theatre directors Ben Harrison, Graham McLaren and Cora Bissett.” Poets, playwrights, and directors should especially understand the dangerous precedent this sets, effectively encouraging and endorsing similar tactics that someday may be employed by people who disagree with their exercise of free speech in a free society.

When artists sign on to silence other artists for whatever reason, and they endorse doing so by illegal coercion, they have sold out their core ideals as artists. When writers are willing to burn books, not only is art dead, but society is dying.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society: edfringe.com/about-us

Incubator Theatre’s The City: A Hip-Hop Opera: thecityhiphopopera.com/

News articles: independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/edinburgh-festival/edinburgh-festival-2014-israeli-show-pulled-by-the-underbelly-after-propalestinian-protests-9640967.html