Iraq and a hard place

If truth is the first casualty of war, can we look to the Festival for answers? Johann Hari views two of the plethora of shows about the conflict
Click to follow

T he Edinburgh Festival is a sprawling, trawling Rorschach test that ends up having all the obsessions of our culture projected on to it sooner or later. Through the 1990s, the festival - like the country - contracted in its focus even as it swelled in audience numbers, looking almost exclusively to the living room and the bedroom as the places where Life happens. The symbol of this depoliticised dick-joke Fringe was Puppetry of the Penis, where Aussies would make extraordinary shapes with their penises, testicles and scrotums. (They really could do the Sydney Opera House.)

But the dominance of this funny, faintly pointless entertainment fell with the World Trade Centre. Today, the Fringe - like our consciousness - sprawls from the slums of Soweto to the peasant farmers of Colombia to the fresh graves of Iraq.

This year's international smorgasbord is dominated by one particular sticky foodstuff - the Middle East. At times, Edinburgh seems like Baghdad-in-a-kilt, with more than a dozen Mesopotamian stories to choose from. As it has never been more important to hear Iraqi voices, I randomly plucked a twin-set of plays that show the invasion of Iraq from both ends - the occupied, and the occupier.

Girl Blog from Iraq: Baghdad Burning at the Pleasance is a bleak, black staging of Riverbend, the famous real-time blog tapped out by a 24-year-old Iraqi woman as she watched Iraq fracture, fissure and fundamentalise around her. The director Kimberley Kefgen has made the smart decision to have the blogger represented, not by one voice, but by four women who shift between voices and roles. This is how blogs feel; not like the continuous monologue of a one-woman show, but a cacophony of echoing, sparring voices.

Before the war, M - the pseudonymous author - was a computer engineer who drove to work alone, worked in mixed company and hung out with Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurd. The play traces the dissolution of this world as it slowly becomes impossible to leave her house without a male relative - "I miss the streets," she says - or without a hijab. "Young women have the choice of giving in, or constantly being defiant," she says, and her brave refusals steadily erode as they bring greater and greater risk to her and her family.

From her perspective, the people who have been liberated are the mullahs, now empowered to issue and enforce ridiculous diktats, such as a fatwa against the World Cup on the grounds that it "distracts people from worship and prayer".

The most powerful details are the smallest. "It's maddening to walk up to the faucet, turn the tap, feel the pipes groaning, and nothing comes," she says. At one point, the stage lights crack to black, and, without comment, the actors take out torches and carry on with their scene.

If anybody returns home late, it is a cue to panic. Have they been seized by the jihadists? The Americans? Kidnappers-for-cash? It's not wise to eat river fish any more, M is told, because they are feeding on the human remains dumped there in near-industrial quantities.

This is a story of despair, and it is hard for somebody who supported the invasion to watch it without a feeling of nauseous shame. Towards the end, M declares: "We have given up on democracy, security, even electricity. Just bring back the water."

But this line hints at the play's central flaw; I think of it as the fallacy of Michael Moore's kite. In its attempt to mount a clean, clear and necessary critique of the horrors of the occupation, the play irons out any ambiguities. M might tell us she has lost hope in democracy, but the audience is never shown those initial hopes. The play skips over the elections - where a majority of Iraqis risked their lives to vote - in a single line.

Saddam Hussein is only mentioned once, when M says in passing: "Whether you loved Saddam or hated him..." - as if these two groups were equally divided among the Iraqi people. Like Moore, she presents Iraq before the war as if it were Sweden, a happy kite-flying land where Kurd and Sunni walked hand in hand through the unpoisoned marshlands.

She even laments "the lost sovereignty," as if the Iraqi people - rather than a fascist dictator they loathed - had been sovereign over Iraq. Why give the defenders of George Bush's occupation such an easy excuse to ignore the essential criticisms contained in this play?

There are many Iraqi blogs that have been terribly ambiguous journeys, where Iraqis find and lose hope on an almost daily basis, alternately giving the purple finger to the jihadists and then reeling from America's weapons and "structural adjustment". To dramatise this volatile agony would have been more representative of the Iraqi people and more theatrically powerful than Baghdad Burning, a play that is simply a straight line into the abyss.

But that would require the adaptor-director Kefgen to give a different answer to the question: is this a work of art, with the subtleties and shades of bloody grey that requires, or a piece of political polemic? M's potted lectures about the danger of reintroducing the draft or electing John Kerry seemed like an inauthentic distraction from her personal story. By presenting M as certain from the start that the fall of Saddam could only ever be a disaster, Kefgen makes her polemic sharper - but her art more blunt and stunted.

Gregory Burke's play Black Watch is the story of the war from the other side of the gun barrel. The Black Watch has been Scotland's crack regiment for more than 300 years, but today - as it shoots through Iraq - it is facing death as an independent force, merged into a modernised Army. One soldier says: "Fuckin' shite war to end wi', eh?" but, unlike Baghdad Burning, this is a cruelly subtle work.

As it opens, a researcher enters a Glasgow pub to talk to some soldiers about their experiences in Iraq, and for a moment it seems like Black Watch will turn out to be yet another turgid work of docu-theatre, passively recounting their stories. But, instead, it takes their words and machine-guns them into an expressive, hellish stress-dream that takes its audience as close to the raw terror the troops feel in Iraq as any of us wants to go. As John Humphrys interviews Geoff Hoon on the Today programme about sending our troops into "the triangle of death" in central Iraq, we watch the troops land in the desert, insurgent fire cracking above them, and mutter: "This wasnae in the adverts, eh?"

Soldiers are usually depicted in plays either as flat-stomached, flat-headed heroes or amoral thugs for hire, but Burke (from a military family himself) ditches these twin impostors for a blurred reality. Black Watch is chaotic, without a clear narrative thrust - a perfect reflection of how the war seems to Our Boys, bewildered as to why they are in Iraq. At first, Iraqis greet them with flowers, kisses and cries of "David Beckham, David Beckham, you know David Beckham?" but within a year they are being mortared. The Iraqi people seem to them an amorphous, inexplicable mass, almost irrelevant to their daily work. The researcher asks them how they felt about the Iraqis, and one answers: "What's it got to do wi' them?"

The soldiers experience doubt - how could they not, when the official reasons for the war turn out to be false? One says: "It's a buzz, eh? You're in a war. But you're no' defending your country. You invaded their country. It's no' what you're trained for. With the difference in firepower, it's more bullying than fighting."

The play swirls these sceptical thoughts into the tedious/terrifying mix of war, where they alternately "blether pish" and sweat in fear. John Tiffany's production is littered with coups de théâtre, where troops emerge from pool tables and an ancestral Black Watch soldier charges through bearing the sword of Robert the Bruce. A suicide bombing is depicted with such megaton-force that several audience members looked like they were about to vomit.

For me, the most startling sequence is where a soldier talks us through the history of the Black Watch as the rest of the cast lift and mould him with military precision, fitting the Watch's uniforms over the centuries on to him.

"We started before Culloden. We're used all over the world, mainly in tribal wars. We're good at that - we're a tribe ourselves," he says as he's lifted and dressed. "We fought in the American War of Independence, against the Russians in Crimea, in the Boer War - which wasnae all that boring. We were sent to crush the Mau Mau in Kenya, to seize Jerusalem, to conquer Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia - where have I heard that before? Oh aye. Here we are. Again."

The question hangs over the audience and over Edinburgh - is Iraq a rupture with this history, or a black, bleak continuation?

'Girl Blog from Iraq: Baghdad Burning', to 28 August (0131-556 6550); 'Black Watch', to 27 August (0131-228 1404)