John Stalker: ‘Edinburgh should hang its head in shame over Israel boycotts’
John Stalker is the promoter for Incubator Theatre’s The City, which was cancelled following anti-Israeli protests at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Here he shares his experience of an extraordinary couple of weeks
It turns out to be many, many more years than I care to remember since I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, perhaps 31 or 32 years. The production was Progress, performed by Edinburgh University Theatre Company at the then recently founded Bedlam Theatre.
The intervening years dim the memory somewhat regarding the precise narrative of the piece but it was set in a dystopian state where the challenge was to confront the realpolitik and replace it with a more ideologically and morally sound form of government.
[pullquote]Theatre and politics are both theoretically a force for change and good[/pullquote]
It appealed to my twin passions for theatre and politics and I have been constantly struck throughout my life by the inter-relationship between the two. Both are theoretically a force for change and for good but I have always been tempted to nail my colours to the ‘power of art over politics’ mast. I write this, therefore, with a strong sense of irony.
Spin forward some 30 years and I find myself supporting a longstanding friend in his desire to bring a production by his satirical theatre company to the Edinburgh Fringe from – wait for it – Jerusalem.
It has become the best advertised but least performed show of this year’s fringe and the first production in the history of the fringe to be emasculated by protests in this way. Edinburgh Festival Fringe has now capitulated to the forces of pro-Palestinian supporters and the production of The City ended its run almost as quickly as it began.
The protests were justified by activists on the basis that Incubator Theatre receives annual subsidy from Israeli cultural funds, a matter of fact that is not in dispute.
I dislike boycotts. They are seldom determinate or proportionate and mean too many different things to different people. I find boycotts of artistic endeavour particularly odious. I find artists who support boycotts of artistic endeavour particularly troubling.
I watched for many years during which the boycott of goods and services from South Africa allegedly held the line against apartheid. I recall the triumphalism of those who broke the boycott when it suited them to bring the Market Theatre of Johannesburg and others to Edinburgh and to many other places across the world.
[pullquote]I witnessed at first hand a level of menace, intimidation and coercion that I had previously thought impossible to witness on the streets of Edinburgh[/pullquote]
On July 30 I watched as members of the public arrived to attend the performance of The City at the Underbelly Cow Barn and witnessed at first hand a level of menace, intimidation and coercion that I had previously thought impossible to witness on the streets of Edinburgh. A 14-year-old girl was yelled at so loudly and at such close quarters that the transfer of spittle from a protestor was evident. Nice.
The task of enforcing the boycott was, surprisingly, not left to those who had summoned it. These included some prominent voices in the arts in Scotland, including our makar, Liz Lochhead, and playwright David Grieg, all of whom were, remarkably, absent on the day I have just described.
No, this precious responsibility was passed on to the ‘professionals’ who had the simple objective of closing the show down – the exact words of the euphemistically titled 'project manager' allocated to the task.
The boycott had moved beyond a protest and had become very quickly a blockade. This not only had troubling implications for artists and companies performing all around the Bristol Square area but the impact upon the police, the city authorities and members of the public was also clear and just as the blockaders intended.
After discussion the remainder of the run was cancelled at that particular venue and attempts to obtain an alternative venue, easier to police and to manage, have come to nothing.
Incubator Theatre found itself without a home and without an audience. There was nothing, in the eyes of the boycotters, the blockaders and the protestors, that Incubator achieves in Israel that could stand in their defence. One penny or, more accurately, one shekel of state funding is apparently enough to damn artists for their association with the State of Israel, even though this financial support brings with it no commitment on the part of the company artists to support or condone the actions of the Israeli government (however inaccurate or out of date some of the statements by protestors and initiators of the boycott actually are).
The cross-cultural work that Incubator Theatre undertakes counts for nothing, its promotion of dialogue that goes right to the heart of its very being counts for nothing. It is damned and must be neutered at all costs.
Living in the UK, living in Scotland as I do and, to a certain extent, living in Western Europe, this position worries me terribly. I find it indefensible, even if I find the current assault on Gaza by Israel intolerable, as I do.
We are not talking about a group having a democratic mandate to protest. There was nothing illegal about Incubator travelling to Edinburgh to perform. Simply, by association, they have been blamed for something that is not their responsibility.
It has certainly garnered great headlines during the early weeks of this year’s Festival but the coverage across all the media is depressing – it advertises to the world that for the first time in over 67 years Edinburgh’s festivals and artistic freedom within Edinburgh is subject to the whim of whichever fanatical protestor shouts the loudest. And the world knows – coverage has included the New York Times, Australian broadcast news and a whole panoply of international media. The damage to Edinburgh’s festivals from this incident is real.
So, is Edinburgh feeling any better as a result of the events of the past two weeks? I sincerely hope not. There should be a collective head hanging in shame. The Edinburgh Festival was itself created in the lee of the Second World War with a remit to provide "a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" and enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe.
[pullquote]The Fringe is, from this year forward, no longer an open access festival[/pullquote]
The Fringe has grown into the largest open access arts festival in the world except that it is, from this year forward, no longer an open access festival. Productions can only now come if they do not upset protestors of whatever cause happens to be raging in that moment. The Scottish Government, the city fathers and the festivals’ authorities would be wise to learn a lesson that has been bitterly felt by five actors from Jerusalem.
And back to irony. The hideous intolerance currently evident in the Middle East between and among communities that have to find a way of living together is unlikely to be eased by intolerance and brute force on the streets of Edinburgh. It panders simply to those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
- John Stalker, promoter, The City