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Courting controversy

Censorship fears greet visitors at Edinburgh Festival, considered host to some of the most experimental of theatre and musical performances

August 27, 2023


s the Edinburgh Festival was about to start this year, there were claims of it being no longer as open as it was once expected to be. Many participants objecting to the various censorial directives issues or enforced, saw those as curbing the freedom of expression as well as action. Edinburgh Festival is considered one of the freest arenas to put up a show. Its ‘fringe’ is known worldwide for a total lack of inhibition in expressing the most repressed of thoughts.

Posters, including those displaying a lineup of bare backs, a woman wearing cat paws and a drag queen children’s entertainer have all become embroiled in censorship rows and gender disputes.

Usually starting in August and stretching up to September, it is a recommended site for the most experimental of theatre shows and musical performances anywhere in the world. There may be more whacky festivals held in the world but the stature that this festival has achieved with its trademark liberal approach is the standard bearer of freedom of expression across the world in art and entertainment.

The apprehensions this year are a clear indication of the shrinking space for the freedom of expression particularly in the arts. As it is, many of the freedoms that were once associated with various art forms and places are now under threat. Everyone is becoming more sensitive about forming the subject of art – be it painting, film, poetry or music. There seemed to be an instant reaction and a backlash about the community, a religion, a sect, a gender, a race, or an ethnic group being the perceived target of fun.

The initial reaction, which is a reflex, is as part of an organised campaign to demonise a particular act or a group or a community. This is seen as a precursor for wore things to happen. The demonisation can lead to the formation of a public opinion unleashing subversive action against the artists.

There has been a cry to ban the event or the show perceived as a deliberate attempt to hurt the feelings of a community or a group – at least an individual. If the latter is targeted, it is because it is seen as pointing to a larger issue and grave circumstances that may appear on the surface. There is a growing sense of intolerance in the world as we survey various societies. Even those that once took great pride in being the leaders in openness while stretching the limits of freedoms in order to make a better world are cringing against the backlash and closing their ranks accordingly.

The persecution mania is on the rise and everyone feels as if they are being targeted. Everyone is feeling insecure and holding on to the railings in desperation. It appears that the ultimate goals of humanity are shooting at sight and at the target that is being laid out. The constant practice of undermining and running down seems to be the only worthwhile activity these days.

The story of the festival dates back to 1947, when eight theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Ever since, more and more performers have followed their example. In 1958, the Festival Fringe Society was created in response to the success of this growing trend. Its constitution was written in line with the ethos that brought these theatre companies to Edinburgh in 1947; that: the Society was to take no part in vetting the festival’s programme. To this day that policy remains at the core of the festival and is proud to include in the programme anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.

An annual ‘poster war’ has raged between rival promoters for as long as the festival fringe has been filling Edinburgh’s small theatres and pop-up venues. But now the battleground has shifted. For some, what was once just a simple process of pasting up a silly or striking poster in order to get noticed has been weaponised, as tastes change and sex and gender politics becomes more controversial. As a result, at this year’s festival, some of the more provocative imagery printed by performers has already been censored or defaced.

India with a huge entertainment industry is fast becoming involved in the process and absorbing it as a tenet of faith. Where rebellion was once seen as a virtue, now conformity is the safer option. The reaffirmation of the avowed truth is now where the salvation lies. Difference is less cherished now than uniformity –a sign of a new kind of regimentation.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore