As the international festival opens, I’ve been pondering cultural differences.
Edinburgh International Festival caused a little controversy by accepting money from the Chinese government this year. ‘Festival under fire for China’s key cash role’ is the headline in The Scotsman today. It reports that human rights organisations have criticised the organisers in the wake of China’s crackdown on dissidents such as Ai Weiwei.
This year’s programme has a focus on Asia, particularly China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Festival director Jonathan Mills notes that these countries’ economic importance and artistic influence are growing by the year. Programme highlights include the National Ballet of China, Ravi Shankar, adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, as well as The Tempest in Korean and King Lear in Mandarin. (That’s not to mention music including Mahler, Strauss, Handel, Ravel, Steve Reich, Philip Glass…)
Of course, Total Theatre concentrates on the Fringe not the International Festival. But there are still questions about our subtle cultural preferences, diversity and conformity. The fringe can be both wonderfully international and surprisingly waspish (wasp being ‘white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ in this context, if that’s not too derogatory…)
So far this year, I’ve seen shows from Colombia (Urban), Italy (Sans Mots), Ireland (Man of Valour), Scotland (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart) and the Czech Republic (La Putyka). The last one, set in a bar, offered free beer in almost a parody of Czechness. Their sign in the photo says ‘no credit’, along the lines of those in pubs here saying ‘Please do not ask for credit because refusing may cause offence’.
Total Theatre does have a record of supporting international companies, such as Ontroerend Goed (Belgium), Akhe Engineering Theatre (Russia) or New International Encounter (who have offices in Cambridge and Oslo and core performers from Norway, Great Britain, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and France).
However, among the young UK theatre companies at the fringe, there’s often a relatively low proportion of black and minority ethnic actors and a high proportion of white middle-class thespians. Of course, this is my impression, not an exact statistical survey. I’m open to corrections and clarifications, or worse. But a significant number of international companies does not necessarily mean diversity closer to home.
When assessing for the Total Theatre Awards, we’ve been advised to double-check our assumptions and taste. It’s not always easy. For example, what might seem like a pastiche of Americana could be a bold, brave artistic statement in some contexts. At the time, a show may be a bit perplexing, avant-garde but years later it stays in the brain as an underappreciated innovation. All you can do is try to keep an open mind, otherwise the situation becomes self-reinforcing. Answers on a postcard, as they say.