On the Edinburgh Fringe over the last three weeks there have been 2,871 shows. Of these less than a handful have focused on the question of Scottish independence. Indeed one of the very few that did, I’m With the Band, was written by a Welshman, and looked at the impact of Scottish independence on Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
Just three or four plays about independence at the largest arts festival in the world which takes place in the Scottish capital, and at the last Edinburgh Festival before the year of the independence referendum. Well, there can only be one of two reasons for this. Either the people of Scotland are so bored by the whole idea that no self-respecting playwright would risk writing about it; or it might be that the arts world has failed abysmally to address the issue of the moment.
If it’s the former, Alex Salmond might as well resign now. But I don’t think it is. The issue of independence is clearly a live one in Scotland, and should be a live one in the rest of the United Kingdom. And if it isn’t, then our artists should be exploring why it isn’t. Either way, there cannot be any excuse for failing to address the issue. Nor need it just be theatre that addresses it. How many of the best Edinburgh jokes lists that we are seeing contain any about independence? Comedians too appear to dismiss the whole independence debate as lacking in scope. Likewise painters, dancers, musicians. Where are the rock songs on the subject? Why should The Independence Symphony be out of the question?
Only at the Edinburgh Books Festival has the issue properly reared its head. Andrew Marr talking about his book The Battle of Scotland said among other things that he was amazed at how little attention the Scottish referendum on independence was receiving in England. “It is almost funny that the Scottish case is not discussed down south at all. People believe the opinion polls that it is going to be overwhelmingly ‘no’. I doubt that very much.”
But if it’s amazing that it isn’t being discussed in England, how much more amazing is it that it isn’t being explored in Scotland, at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. I am one of very many who argue that theatre is crucial to our lives as, among other things, it informs us about the world and the issues that affect us. It is harder to make that argument convincingly when theatre — and yes comedy too — shows such a staggering lack of interest in one of the biggest schisms in the United Kingdom in our lifetimes. Do artists not read the papers or watch the news?
In 50 years’ time, though, there will be probably be plenty of plays about Scottish independence. Or more likely, there will be plenty of Scottish independence musicals. Anniversary theatre, with music, seems to be in vogue. Andrew Lloyd Webber has already announced that, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Profumo scandal, he will be opening a musical about it in December. It will be called Stephen Ward, after a key protagonist in the scandal. But, why have one 50th anniversary musical when you can have two? Suddenly, it emerges that a new musical called Profumo (and not by Lloyd Webber) will have its world premiere next week at the Waterloo East Theatre in London. No doubt, Keeler the opera and Rice Davies the ballet are to come.
I love pretty much everything about the Proms, but why do they boast of bringing pop and classical together in revelatory style with a late night Prom that had The Stranglers and Laura Marling performing with a classical orchestra? I attended that late night Prom, and it was fun to see fine performances from both acts, but being told from the stage what a revelatory concept this was did puzzle me. That little known outfit The Beatles had an orchestra in the studio more than once, The Who performed their rock opera Tommy with the London Symphony Orchestra well over 40 years ago. The Proms aren’t being quite as original as they claim.