Bissett, Hurley and me: Scottish theatre and the independence referendum

Yes or No? It’s supposed to be a simple answer to a simple question. Do you want this thing or not? For Scotland, the question is far from simple and the answer, whichever way it goes, is going to create irrevocable change.

I sent off my postal vote at the end of August and suddenly found myself outside of the furore. From this vantage point I began to reflect on people whose words and whose works had more power to influence my choices than those of politicians- the artists, performers, writers that I look up to and respect, almost all of whom take a different political stance to me over the question of Scottish independence.

It began, it can be assumed, almost as soon as the referendum was announced, but it didn’t strike me as odd until one typical Edinburgh Fringe day as I caught up with friends over pints, known Yes supporter Alan Bissett’s The Pure, The Dead and The Brilliant came up. “I’m really looking forward to it,” I told the friend who was working on the show through her involvement in National Collective – the non-party movement for artists and creatives in support of Scottish independence.

As we discussed our mutual interest in Alan Bissett’s work, and as she encouraged me to come along not only to the play but to National Collective itself, I realised that a lot of assumptions had been made. Our mutual interest in a particular piece of performance had become political, and I sat on the wrong side of the fence. It felt awkward, whether to carry on the conversation as it was and discuss the theatrical interests we both shared while silently implying another mutual connection, or to confess myself as a no voter, not supporting the message that the play intended I take away, but still fully invested in exploring its world.

It’s a common theme, and one that drives me to question whether political theatre should be only for those who share the same political beliefs, or who will be convinced by its message. I would say no, but I wonder whether the makers of those shows would disagree. I didn’t, in the end, make it to Alan Bissett’s pro-independence Fringe show, but it was illness and not politics that got in my way.

By contrast the Scotland positive message I took from Kieran Hurley’s Rantin earlier in the year was one that fueled my voting choice. A play all about the multiplicity of Scottish identity, I felt included in its ranks, identifying as both Scottish and English and as part of a United Kingdom. Does it detract from the work, or lessen a political message if at the end of it an audience, represented by me, don’t take away the same ideals as its creator? Well, no. That seems silly. And yet to me the power of that art to make me question my choices, to strengthen my decisions, or otherwise, is so much more than the power any politician holds over my decision to work.

Politically engaged theatre should always exist. It gives an outlet for those who create to get their message across and gives those who engage with it an alternative perspective. It may be as personally and politically charged as someone stopping you in the street to campaign, but there’s a distance between audience and performer, layers of metaphor and of symbolism that create an often more insightful look into an issue, one that hopefully leaves you questioning your own opinions and how they are influenced by what you have seen. Whatever you take away from that, whether it’s agreement or disagreement with the show’s political values, if you have engaged with the question and come away with something to think about, then that in itself is, I would hope, the most important thing.

As the referendum approaches it seems to be taking over the Scottish theatre scene entirely, with the Arches’ Referendum Festival following on from an incredibly politically charged Edinburgh Fringe, of which Bissett’s play is just one more famous example. Nonetheless it’s important to remember that whatever happens on the September18th, Scottish theatre and art is going to be entirely changed, but what should remain with either a yes or a no vote, is its political engagement, its thoughtful questioning and its inspiration and inclusion of all; yes, no, undecided, or anything.

[Emma Ainley-Walker]

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