Walking The Tightrope
4 stars ****
Underbelly Potterrow (Venue 358)
SUBTITLED “the tension between art and politics”, Walking The Tightrope is probably the show on this year’s Fringe that best deserves to be called essential. Put together by the Underbelly in response to last year’s row over the forced withdrawal of a young Israeli company from the Fringe, the show was first seen in London in January, soon after the shocking events at Charlie Hebdo, and offers eight tiny five-minute plays about freedom of expression by a range of leading writers, followed by a half-hour discussion.
Perhaps because of the constraints of the format, the quality of the plays varies wildly. Neil LaBute goes right to the heart of the matter by asking whether it’s OK for a black male performance artist to stage a prolonged rape of a white actress, as a gesture of payback for centuries of oppression. Timberlake Wertenbaker dramatises the ludicrous coommercial pressures on writers who want to say one thing and end up saying something complete different; Cary Churchill mourns the death of meaningful language in her own inimitable style.
Elsewhere, some of the plays have a slightly inward-looking London-theatre-scene feel about them, as – for example – a posh mother and son in Edinburgh for the Fringe argue about the Israeli issue over her copy of the Guardian, and his clown suit; and it’s certainly true that the audience’s enjoyment of the event depends heavily on the quality of the post-show discussion.
At its best, though, Walking The Tightrope offers a series of fine, tight, well-choreographed performances from Cressida Brown’s excellent company of four; as well as a hugely significant opportunity to get to grips with the complex freedom-of-speech issues that increasingly haunt our society, as the right to offend becomes ever more constrained, and groups in conflict increasingly see the media and the arts as arenas not for open discussion, but for demonstrations of their power to silence those with whom they disagree.