Meta-theatre, voyeurism and the vogue for Lecoq

Nicky Woolf's second Edinburgh diary.

 

August 9. Day two.

The day dawns with rude punctuality. I am not, by inclination, an early riser, but by seven the sun is shining through the open window on my face with tropical brutality: the city is glorying in a heatwave. I rise mostly in order to stave off sunburn, and head for the Pleasance.

The first show I see is a real gem. Greenlight Theatre's Seeing Double is really two plays, Double: Vision and Double: Figures, running simultaneously with a video-link between the two, and I begin my day with the former. The shows together are a meta-theatrical farce about the collapse of an ambitious production of Macbeth, and it is riotously funny and tightly performed, so I book for the next day's production of Figures, to complete my set.

Next door to it, at the Pleasance courtyard, is a low black construction which houses the Peep stage, set up so that the audience sits in booths surrounding the stage in the middle, separated from their fellow viewers by curtains and from the performers by one-way glass; the sound comes over headphones. There are three short (20 minute) shows that play here, all about sex and sexuality, and I see the middle show, 69, by the Royal Court's Leo Butler. It is immaculately directed, production values are clearly very high and the voyeuristic effect works uncomfortably well.

My two shows for the evening are both by companies that have been formed out of the Jacques Lecoq drama school. Lecoq (childish snigger) is famous for physical theatre, focussing on dynamic movement and choreography, and is also a famously brutal learning environment: ninety students are accepted for the first year of the course, but sixty of them have been culled by the end of the first year. Lecoq is very much in vogue at Edinburgh this year; there are lots of shows by Lecoq graduates this year. I chose two of them for my first evening.

Edinburgh, built on a series of closely-packed and steep hills and hillocks, is a multi-layered city. From Cowgate, a valley street, you can look up at Nicholson, one of the city's great thoroughfares, crossing about fifty feet above you on an ancient stone arch, the buildings whose doors open onto it five stories above descend chaotically to the lower level, one city on top of another.

It is the Underbelly that takes the best advantage of this labyrinthine civic architecture. Its Cowgate headquarters is a bewildering warren of tunnels and dank chambers buried in the bowels of the city, and my first show, Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice, is in one of its deepest and dankest. This vaulted dungeon is an apt setting for a deeply, deeply surreal performance about the end of the space race, science fiction, and memory loss. The audacity of the conception is breathtaking, and the effect is a show whose overall effect is a little bit mind-altering; at times too weird, but also at times strangely beautiful. It leaves me feeling a little winded, so I gulp a restorative libation at the Library Bar at the Gilded Balloon, and then head to the second show of the night.

This is Centralia at Zoo Aviary, a charming character-comedy about the last three inhabitants of a town in Pennsylvania that is beset by a slow-burning seam of coal that runs beneath it, turning into a superheated nightmare of smoke and yawning infernal chasms. It is a wonderful play, the characters are lovingly designed and there are some fantastic physical set-pieces, just in case we had forgotten what Lecoq training is all about; but the most amazing thing is that the story of the town of Centralia is entirely and dramatically true.

Day One: The Big Four explained.

Voyeurs wanted: Peep's show, 69. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.