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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis