Fringe frolics

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

On Friday, the Scotsman announced week one's winners of the "Fringe First" awards for new writing at the Edinburgh Festival. Of the six so-called "best of the fest', I was lucky enough to catch two: Beautiful Burnout at The Pleasance Forth, and Speechless at the Traverse. One might well argue that neither of these fairly mainstream pieces is reflective of the "spirito di Fringe", and that their credentials as marginalia are questionable. Burnout, for example, is a Frantic Assembly co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. It has its own, unshared auditorium, a lavish set, by Fringe standards, and, moreover, all the economic punch of a major player.

However, in terms of sheer physical commitment, Bryony Lavery's play about a group of young Glasgow boxers chasing the big time is beyond reproach. Audience members are ringsiders to a sweaty spectacular from the performers, who at times abstract the boxing repertoire into stylised formations and dance, and at others jack up the realism to the point of terrifying brutality. The training and fight sequences transfer beautifully to dance form, as do the soft-shoed referees, nimble and cambered as they peer into the action.

The piece feeds greedily off the filmic: as well as a bank of video screens, we have a soundtrack courtesy of Underworld, whose electronic anthems are ever associated in the mind with the Weedgie radges of Trainspotting. A revolving stage swivels the actors around, mid-fight, as they go into slo-mo and freeze-frame, and we arrive at The Matrix. Even the trainer's name - Burgess - seems to slyly reference Meredith Burgess of Rocky fame.

The characters are instantly recognisable fighting types: there's your world-weary trainer (check!), then there's his protegé, your classic pasty ginger one (Ryan Fletcher), and his showboating tawny nemesis (Taqi Nazeer). More gratifyingly, the lads are matched, blow for blow, by a young lassie, Dina (Vicki Manderson). She inevitably loses her place in the boxing story, and as the pugilists punch each other's lights out, her role dwindles to that of sad showgirl with a broken heel. Her fate, and that of the brain-damaged boxer, may just serve the final "hold the front page - boxing is bad for you" point of the play, but we sure have fun getting to that point.

Speechless, scripted by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan, and presented by Shared Experience with Sherman Cymru, is inspired by the real-life story of June and Jennifer Gibbons. The electively mute twins of West Indian parentage achieved a certain notoriety for their incarceration in Broadmoor after a steady withdrawal from the outside world. The show reveals the two youngsters as impossibly enmeshed. June (Demi Oyediran) and Jennifer (Natasha Gordon) move with synchronised but leaden grace, their every movement loaded with pain; they fight like wildcats but cannot function independently. They will always be "the Twinnies".

The play skirts the issue of the twins' private idiom, their dialect of two, and we understand them perfectly (when they are alone) as articulate girls, with writerly aspirations - girls whose imaginations are constantly at play over the grounds of early eighties popular culture: Top of the Pops, The Generation Game, Tupperware parties. And nothing is as fascinating for them as the Royal Family: the details of the Windsor frocks, the Royal colours of mint, lime and canary yellow, are repeatedly trawled over. It's the fascination and fierce loyalty of the outsider looking in. This is not simply a tale of spooky twins - the girls' race further marks and alienates them in uneasy post-colonial times.

The piece makes compelling use of archive recordings, and voice-overs of the twins' actual writings, and these auditory documents spool out unsettlingly. To an 'I heart 1981" soundtrack of the Brixton riots on the one hand and the nuptials of Charles and Di on the other, June and Jennifer become enamoured of a misfit American boy, the ironically-named Kennedy. Almost as removed from the British mainstream as the twins, he, however, expresses his own alienation with foul-mouthed nihilism. As Lady Di emerges on TV in her crumpled white winding sheets ("ten, maybe twelve pearl button on the cuff!") the twins have sex of dubious consensuality with the dissolute Kennedy, and the news of his imminent departure for the Land of the Free seals their fate - and their lips - for good.

Just as it pulls the twins' lives out of kilter, so does Kennedy's arrival buckle the play's shape. It remains, however, a gorgeously acted, insightful piece - as well as a chronicle of Eighties' camp.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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