Edinburgh festival - Sex and violence

Johann Hari on how the Fringe has rediscovered politics and pornography

The events of 11 September have had many unexpected consequences. The explosions that downed the twin towers have also blasted the Edinburgh Fringe's obsession with the private sphere. For years, theatre critics such as Michael Billington have quite rightly complained that Fringe shows have no thought at all for their social and political context.

Well, politics is back.

"Political" drama has, for 20 years, been tainted by memories of 1970s agitprop. Howard Brenton and others so devalued the genre that it has taken a new generation with no memory of those plays to reconnect theatre to the world outside the living room.

There are far too many examples of serious, meaty politics on the Fringe to list here. Some of the juiciest highlights include Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who are jetting in to town to perform The Guys, a show about living on the island of Manhattan in 2002; the Al-Hamlet Summit at the Pleasance, which sends Shakespeare's characters to a summit on the contemporary Middle East; Project 9/11 at the Assembly Rooms, performed by NYC residents; and The Children of Srebrenica For Peace at the Demarco Rocket, a performance where Bosnian, Serb and Muslim kids talk about their experiences.

My own festival kicked off with a play at the Traverse that reflects the new seriousness: Safety by Chris Thorpe. It is a character study of a Don McCullin-like war photographer who is so warped by his experiences of late-20th-century conflicts that when he sees his daughter drowning, he hesitates. His gut reaction is not to dive in and save her, but to ready his camera. His marriage has become equally soured; his wife tells him: "I used to dread the phone ringing because it might mean you had been killed. Now I just worry that I might have to talk to you."

This intelligent play questions the corrosive ethical dilemmas confronted when you snatch pictures of the dead and dying. As the central character takes a picture of a man bleeding to death in Bosnia, his subject yells at him. He doesn't need a translator: "When you have been called a fucking bastard in as many languages as I have, you learn to recognise the sound."

Today's successful political theatre (of which this is a good example) is refracted through personal narratives. It doesn't try to be a newspaper column on stage; rather, it seeks the emotional truths that lie unspoken beneath the daily news agenda. Sarah Kane, after all, explained that her notorious play Blasted was a form of "imagined reportage" about the genocide in Bosnia - and this generation of fringe performers have adopted her philosophy.

The events of 11 September dominate the imagination here - but the other hot topic looming over this year's Fringe is porn. Deep Throat: live on stage at the Assembly Rooms explores the life of Linda Lovelace, the porn star who died this year; while Jack Pleasure at C venues is the story of a disaffected coach-driver who runs away to the States to become a porn star. But these shows will have to reach an extraordinarily high standard to match the second play I saw at the Traverse - Stitching by Anthony Neilsen.

Neilson has a history of writing startlingly sexually explicit plays. The Censor premiered at a pub theatre and was snatched up swiftly by the Royal Court, despite candid scatological sequences. Stitching exceeds even that remarkable play. It opens as the straightforward story of a couple, Abi and Stuart, who seem (at least at first) to have met when Abi offered to sleep with Stuart for cash.

Neilsen has David Mamet's ear for harsh, real dialogue, without his misanthropic refusal to allow us to sympathise with any of his characters. As Stuart begins to explain what he wants, we get a nasty insight into the darker recesses of the male mind. Demanding that she wears high heels, Stuart barks: "If I pay you like a whore, then that's what I want . . . not some cunt in comfortable shoes." Some lines are deliberately provocative and offensive.

But this is a terrifyingly honest play in a culture saturated with internet porn. Neilsen has, in effect, taken us to the websites that flash across every computer before being (in most cases) closed swiftly. Worse - he shows us the people who use these sites, why they do it, and that they are not monsters.

That said, as Stuart waves images he has printed off the web at her and snarls about "cutting your tits with a razor blade", Neilsen succeeds in challenging libertarian attitudes to porn. As the play develops, it becomes a repulsive, remarkable study of sexual extremes and of grief. Its final ten minutes are lacerating and unbearable - but if I see a better play this festival, I will be surprised.

Stitching and Safety are at the Traverse Theatre until 24 August. For booking information call 0131 228 1404

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Wrong War