The left isn't always right

Political playwrights have found a voice, and an audience, again. Johann Hari visits the Edinburgh Fringe, where acid-soaked dialogue is blasting kitchen-sink drama away, and finds that the radical consensus is under threat

Thursday 21 August 2003 00:00 BST

Last year, it seemed that the attack on the twin towers had also blasted the Edinburgh Fringe's head out of its own backside. The endless narcissistic plays about failed relationships and dysfunctional families gave way to something else: drama that realised that there was a world beyond the kitchen and the bedroom. So, 2002 was the year when political theatre staggered from the shallow grave in which it was dumped some time in the early 1980s; 2003 is the year when the body began to dance.

A lot of this much-vaunted new political theatre has, admittedly, suffered from the problems that administered a lethal injection to the genre 20 years ago. Way, way too much of it has been designed solely to massage the lazy prejudices of its audiences. One more routine about how Americans are all obese imbeciles, and I think my head might have burst; one more person howling at some smugly inactive audience that "children are dying, children are dying", and I might have lapsed into a coma. But from this sea of predictable, knee-jerk tedium, two stunning (and very different) new voices have risen.

My favourite by far is the extraordinary 27-year-old Australian playwright Van Badham. She has three wildly differing shows on the fringe. Morning on a Rainy Day, the first part of a double bill appearing at C Venue under the title Bedtime for Bastards, is like a pre-September-11 relationship play, but it shows that she can handle character observation and dialogue like a master. Its companion piece, Capital, is the polar opposite: a violent satire obviously influenced by late-era Harold Pinter, in which a pair of advertising executives are commissioned by the US government to find a way to "spin" a tape obtained by al-Jazeera showing US marines murdering and raping their way through an Iraqi hospital.

But it is her third work, Camarilla, that made me feel as if I had been punched in the stomach. A wave of terrorist attacks is hitting London, and Maggy Tanner - a left-wing academic and contributor to the New Statesman - is caught, along with her daughter, in a massive bomb blast on Bond Street. The play follows their attempt to come to terms with the trauma (and the resulting repressive legislation) as Maggy's belligerently neoliberal American step-son arrives to visit. Skip the next few paragraphs if you are likely to see the show: it emerges that Maggy's daughter Rebekah is part of a violent anti-globalisation group that is behind the attacks.

Badham attacks the cosy centre-left consensus of so many tedious fringe shows from the radical left. "I've watched you my whole life - marching, talking, painting banners, waving placards," Rebekah tells her mother. "Every interview you've ever given - and who listens to you? They listen if you act. It's a political act for a political outcome. Like the IRA, the Sandinistas, the Fretilin and the Burmese Student Army - all the freedom fighters you've always marched behind." Her mother retorts: "Who's been in your head?", only to be told, "You have, Maggy Tanner. All my life."

If it sounds like agitprop, then I'm not doing it justice. Quite apart from telling a cracking story, Badham uses theatre as a forum where political ideas can be clarified, clash and die. In dialogue that feels as though it has been soaked overnight in acid, her characters rip one another's politics apart - and she does not spare the revolutionary-left characters ("I look forward to reading your article in Gulag Today," Maggy's stepson snaps), with whom she most clearly identifies.

The fracturing of Maggy's family deftly symbolises the political fracturing of the left: a chasm is opening up once more between reformists and revolutionaries, those of us who think that we can achieve positive change within a political system dominated by America and those who believe that we are kidding ourselves. Badham is the poet of that division. I disagree with her politics, but she dramatises the divisions I see and feel every day among left-wingers better than any other writer I know, and she makes a dazzling, terrifying case that has to be answered. With all political parties in democracies being co-opted by big business and neoliberalism, her characters - and a small but significant portion of the anti-globalisation movement - are tempted by the idea that violent resistance may be the only way forward. Badham predicts that a new generation of Baader-Meinhof Gangs may be about to rise. If they do, she will provide their most eloquent and dangerous voices. Nicholas Hytner has said that he wants our National Theatre to become politically dangerous again; does he have the courage to stage this writer's work?

Another, almost as vibrant, is the Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist. In a brutalist style that it has forged over the past four years on the fringe, the cast of four Americans performs less a play, more a dramatised essay. Last year, Victory at the Dirt Palace ripped the US media to shreds; this year, the group takes on the US military. On the hunt for a foreign leader codenamed "the Bearded Lady", four marines set out to perform "the first truly whimsical remote assassination". They are certain that their vast technological superiority assures their safety ("Good thing we took the danger out of this war thing, or I'd be worried," a marine laughs) and utterly contemptuous of Arab civilian casualties ("Every man in this country is a lookalike of the Bearded Lady," he later barks).

The commentary on the second Gulf war is lacerating. "Victory forgives dishonesty," a commander yells, in a phrase that may well dominate the private thoughts of George Bush. "If at first you don't succeed, redefine success," he says later, and toward the end - in a soundbite that could fall with chilling ease from Donald Rumsfeld's lips - he explains: "I'd rather be alive and ignorant than dead and sensitive to the concerns of the world." Or how about this as a text for his next press conference: "They either love us, or they love to hate us. Either way, we're spreading love." Don't laugh. Please.

Where the play works best is where it challenges the prejudices of its audience. Having associated the US military with sexism throughout the play (to which the female marine insists, "Success is my feminism"), the audience is then pricked by the information that the US army is one of the most racially integrated institutions in the world, and has a far higher number of black executives than any European institution. The theatrical picture created by the Riot Group is at its best when it edges into troubling shades of grey. Politically, I can't help but feel that the play is slightly neutered by its myopic focus on soldiers. Yes, Pugilist Specialist shows clearly the distastefulness of any professional killing machine; but, except for pacifists, the morality of any actions taken by that machine is surely determined by the politicians (and, ultimately, the democratic populations) who control them, and the play shies away from looking at them. But with more real conflict, the Riot Group's eloquence and energy could produce an extraordinary work.

There are a number of other interesting and talented political voices showcased this year: John Finnemore's Tails You Lose and Henry Naylor's Finding Bin Laden spring to mind. But it was Adriano Shaplin of the Riot Group who, speaking on an Institute of Ideas panel, outlined a compelling new agenda for political theatre: "It seemed to us that, when it came to the war, George Bush had the best story about Us and Them. I wanted to tell a better story about why we went to war."

After decades of political torpor, we can look to the fringe to tell a better story than the powerful and the right-wing about how our world got into its current state.

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