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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage