‘Humphrey Bogart meets Jay-Z in a gritty and darkly comic whodunit hip-hop opera.’ That’s how The City, by the Incubator Theatre, is described in the publicity material for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Who would have thought that a piece of musical theatre, with a nod to film noir, would provoke sententious calls for a boycott from prominent members of Scotland’s artistic community? But Incubator Theatre, Jerusalem’s leading professional theatre company, is in part funded by Israel’s Ministry of Culture and therefore will not be tolerated at an international arts festival backed by a self-described liberal group of artists who are clearly not so liberal after all.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is one of the largest and greatest arts festivals in the world. Performers from all over the globe congregate in one small(ish) city for three weeks. One of its attractions is that it brings a hugely diverse range of people to the Scottish capital. This year’s festival is taking place within a few weeks of the Scottish independence referendum, so it should be an especially rambunctious affair, packed full of debate on political questions as well as the usual cultural offerings. But instead of applauding the Fringe and celebrating what is on show, it seems there are many cultural figures calling for restrictions on what should be on offer – in other words, censorship.
Scotland’s national poet Liz Lochhead is one of more than 50 cultural figures demanding the cancellation of The City, which is due to be staged at the Underbelly venue. Lochhead has signed an open letter, along with Alasdair Gray, David Greig, Ben Harrison, Graham McLaren, Cora Bissett and others, which states: ‘We the undersigned… write to you to protest against your programming of a show entitled The City, by the Israeli company Incubator Theatre, during the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The current brutal assault by Israel on the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of your error in co-operating with the company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the state of Israel.’
Lochhead explained her decision to support a boycott of Israeli artists and academics in a separate statement saying: ‘This is part of a necessary process – this boycotting – if a painful one for all liberals – because we, the international community, must protest by any means possible Israel’s current actions in Gaza, and indeed its ongoing illegal treatment of all Palestinians.’
Many people are horrified by what is happening in Gaza, but censorship is never the answer to any problem. And artists should never try to shut down the work of other artists. Rather, all artists should have artistic freedom no matter where they are from, who they are funded by, or, as it happens, what they are saying.