At the Fringe
'Will we be safe here?' asked a German man sitting next to me in the front row. We were about to see Leave. To Remain (An Aristophanic Brexit Tale), a Fringe production modelled on Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist, Dikaiopolis, makes a private peace treaty with Sparta while the rest of Athens remains at war. My neighbour was worried we'd be expected to take part in the show. It's set in a not too distant, post-Brexit future, where the British equivalent of Athenian direct democracy is interactive TV programmes.
Following the Non-British Foods and Beverages Act, illegal markets flourish, while anti-European inspectors are out to get anyone in possession of a slice of pizza. ‘Duty-free camembert is a delightful deal,’ a Tory MP says, looking to increase his expenses. Meanwhile, a Remainer called Dick applies to rejoin the EU individually and has to defend his position in a TV debate styled as a poetry battle against a Brexiter called Ol’ Nige. Other plays running at the Fringe this year include Brexit Through the Gift Shop, Brexit Stage Left, Eurosceptic Song Contest, A Very Brexit Musical, Pig Circus, It's a Dog's Brexit, and The EU Inspector (based on Gogol's satire).
Theresa May visited Edinburgh last week to sign an investment agreement. She urged Nicola Sturgeon, concerned that the Brexit plan ‘seems to be dead’, to support the government's negotiations with the EU 'rather than sowing the politics of division'. A group of protesters outside a university building booed and heckled May as she left, some of them shouting 'Stop Brexit!' and 'Theresa, are you coming in the show? We've got a food bank.'
Playing alongside this year's topical shows are several classics of European theatre: an impressive all-male production of Jean Genet's The Maids; The Arsonists by Max Frisch; and five pieces from Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo, a cycle of 13 biblical parables. Jongleur, a peasant turned performer, enters dressed as a Deliveroo courier (the company has teamed up with Organise to campaign for workers’ rights) and stumbles over the root of an imaginary orange tree. Picking an imaginary orange (produce of Italy), he offers it to one of the audience. 'Does that mean for something to exist we all have to believe in it?' he asks. 'Also, that when we believe in something, it becomes real?' In the finale, real oranges spill out of the delivery box.
EU citizens wishing to participate in the Fringe, whether as performers or spectators, may soon find themselves in the position of some of the authors invited to this year's Edinburgh book festival. Several writers from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe were refused UK visas. The Fringe still qualifies as a 'permit-free' event, which makes it easier for artists to travel there, but that may change if the UK closes its borders to Europe.
Still, Leave. To Remain ended on an optimistic note. Granted EU membership, Dick sets up a stall selling French wine, Spanish sausage and Italian pasta to hungry Brits. He manages to get Nige on his side with the promise of Bavarian lager and Jägerbombs. My German neighbour seemed relieved and cheered by the denouement. Some of the props – a baguette and a few pieces of chorizo – remained on stage, making the idea of audience participation more palatable.