Speech problems: Gabriel Quigley as Fiona, Scotland's new foreign minister in Spoiling, Traverse Theatre. Photo: Jeremy Abrahams
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Edinburgh Fringe plays tackle Scottish independence in irreverent, tub-thumping form

Because the theatrical profession generally attracts more radicals than reactionaries, these performances tend to be rallies for the Yes campaign.

While the official Edinburgh International Festival has approached the question of independence tangentially through Jacobite history (see page 50), the Fringe has dramatised Scotland’s most urgent concern more directly, with over two-dozen shows that turn in some way on the referendum.

Because the theatrical profession generally attracts more radicals than reactionaries, these performances tend to be rallies for the Yes campaign. David Hayman’s one-man play The Pitiless Storm (Assembly Rooms), written by Chris Dolan, features a veteran Labour trade unionist agonising over defection to the SNP position. Although it ultimately comes down tub-thumpingly on one side, the show – which will tour Scottish towns until the eve of the vote – electrifyingly dramatises the fight going on within the minds of the undecided.

The cheekiest contribution to the debate is Spoiling by John McCann (Traverse Theatre), which assumes a Yes vote on 18 September and imagines the day of the handover of power. Scotland’s foreign minister-elect, Fiona (Gabriel Quigley), is working on the speech that she will deliver alongside her UK opposite number, when a Scottish government official, Mark (Richard Clements), arrives, asking to check over the text. McCann entertainingly creates a scenario in which English dirty tricks are being played even after secession but attributes to Westminster a degree of Machiavellian preparation for post-independence that seems too pessimistic – although the assumption that a Yes vote might somehow be scuppered by London is revealing of the current level of distrust between the countries.

Independence dramas are trying to hit a moving target, resulting in plays that are inherently transitional and disposable. For this reason, the best work at the Traverse this year is Salmond-free, including Mark Thomas’s Cuckooed, the deserved recipient of a Fringe First Award. No doubt for economic reasons, the solo show has become Edinburgh’s default form but Thomas merges the best elements of drama and stand-up to re-enact his shocking betrayal by a fellow campaigner against the arms trade. Emma Callander’s imaginative staging includes video interviews on sliding trays pulled from filing cabinets. This intelligent morality tale starts a tour in Oxford in October, reaching London in December.

One of the few political plays looking south is Kingmaker (Pleasance Courtyard), which anticipates the resignation of David Cameron and a charismatic but shambolic London mayor’s bid to replace him as PM. One of the problems with Robert Khan’s and Tom Salinsky’s Whitehall farce is that the protagonist can’t be Boris Johnson for legal reasons – the plot involves behaviour that might shock even Bojo supporters – but any impact depends on the audience thinking constantly about Johnson.

The actor Alan Cox cleverly projects an essence of charming disaster-proneness without attempting a Boris impression but the play’s consideration of how a politician turns mistakes and scandals into proof of authenticity offers no insights that were not in Michael Cockerell’s devastating profile on BBC2 in 2013.

A strong American presence this year includes Title and Deed (Assembly Hall), a monologue by the US playwright Will Eno. The speaker in Title and Deed seems, from the rucksack with which he arrives onstage and his repeated use of phrases such as “I don’t know if you have that here”, to be some sort of tourist, although his increasing estrangement from reality suggests that he may be an alien in the extraterrestrial as well as the immigration department sense. Captivatingly played by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, this unnerving meditation on the conflicting human instincts of suspicion and sympathy finally feels like ET rewritten by Samuel Beckett.

Drawing large audiences because of the participation of the movie star Anne Archer, The Trial of Jane Fonda (Assembly Rooms) dramatises the occasion in 1988 when Fonda agreed to meet, at a Connecticut church, Vietnam veterans who were campaigning to stop her shooting a movie in their home town because of her visit to Hanoi during the war in apparent support of the enemy. Some exchanges animate the culture wars that exist in the US to this day but the conclusion – that the star and the soldiers showed different sorts of integrity – is dismayingly glib.

The oddest project is Blind Hamlet (Assembly Roxy), a production by the Actors Touring Company of a play by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour. As the lights go down, a stage manager switches on a voice recorder and places it under a microphone, which amplifies a recorded talk by Soleimanpour involving his thoughts on Shakespeare’s tragedy and tests for an eye condition that may cause blindness. His disembodied voice occasionally summons to the stage members of the audience, who are then instructed to play one of those corporate away-day games involving closing eyes and trusting others. There’s an expression about Hamlet without the prince but this is Hamlet without the Hamlet and the gimmick of an actorless play palls long before the hour is up. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit