Edinburgh goes corporate: Is it time for a fringe of the Fringe?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe has swelled to an untameable 2,871 shows, most of them well-behaved and aspiring. Matt Trueman gives his pick of the shows brave enough to stick their heads above the parapet.

Against a backdrop of brand logos, plastic pint glasses and corporate away-days, people wonder whether the real Edinburgh Festival Fringe still exists. The festival has swelled to an untameable 2,871 shows, most of them well-behaved and aspiring. It’s time, some say, for a fringe of the Fringe.
So, it’s only fitting that questions of authenticity and artifice are being asked. First there’s David Leddy’s Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse Theatre (until 25 August), a caper in which a pair of con artists (mostly trading in fake handbags) move into major art forgery. Or rather art-forgery forgery, because their plan is to pull off a huge con, come clean and then live off the kudos. It’s the perfect crime, as Jean Baudrillard might say.
The play prods at the terms “real” man, “real” woman and “true” love but its main target is the free market. It triggers a race to the bottom in which scammers scam scammers, who scam other scammers. Though Leddy occasionally trips into clever-clever territory and starts to irritate, he has brio, toying with the show’s authenticity through scenes written in the style of verbatim theatre and in accents from around the UK. A world that eats its own tail, he suggests, will ultimately consume itself and disappear.
There’s another great faker in Kubrick3 at the Pleasance (until 26 August), a play about Alan Conway, who posed as the reclusive director for several years (and inspired the 2005 film Colour Me Kubrick). Conway bedded students, hobnobbed with Julie Walters and gave interviews to the New York Times, although he’d only ever seen half a Kubrick film (he walked out before the end). David Byrne’s impish production makes canny use of four actors – three female, one male – as a hydra-like Conway, back from the dead, ashgrey and running circles around his son. The play is scruffy and small but its well-honed gags and gusto are ample compensation. It has an intriguing philosophy: if life gives you lemons, grab someone else’s limelight.
Kieran Hurley’s and A J Taudevin’s Chalk Farm, at the Underbelly until 25 August, is a serious rejoinder to the constructed narrative of the summer 2011 riots. We have been spun a story of mindless violence and poor parenting; this disruptive piece refuses to swallow it. Jamie is watching on the telly. His neighbourhood looks like a film set. The itch to get closer, to join in – let’s face it, we all felt that – proves too much.
Outside, kids carry goods in bulk. Jamie nabs a gift for his mum. History is being made, even if no one can quite articulate the causes. It’s a class thing but not in the way the papers and politicians make out. Chalk Farm is guilty of beautifying mayhem but it understands without excusing and is fierce and fixed in its gaze.
In Have I No Mouth at the Traverse (until 21 August), Feidlim Cannon attempts to heal his family’s wounds. Onstage with his mother – a reiki master – and their psychotherapist, Cannon invokes the circumstances of his brother’s death in 1984 and then his father’s in 2001. The latter was preventable. Totemic objects – a natty doll, photographs – and reenactments build a charge and when the psychotherapist, his head wrapped in bandages, stands in for Cannon’s father, it’s as raw as anything I’ve seen onstage.
Watching Have I No Mouth is a challenging experience. Whether the play is being staged for the benefit of its participants or ours, I’m not sure – it makes you feel their pain, rather than soothing yours. Yet it’s hard to dismiss this display of their agony as indulgent. This is theatre with undeniable force.
Posters line the streets in the run up to the Fringe. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood