Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Edinburgh’s joyless festival of wokery


THERE is always a lot of rubbish at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, but this year that was truer than ever. Bins were overflowing and festering detritus was wind-strewn across the streets. The ugliness and effluvium assaulted the senses. Rats had been spotted, a public health emergency mooted. 

Everywhere in the ‘Athens of the North’ are signs of decline: Princes Street, not long ago a showpiece thoroughfare to rival any in the world, is now a strip mall of bucket shops, vacant lots and a few same-as-anywhere-else staples on life support. The elegant department store Jenners is boarded up. On every street the homeless plead.

At the festival, which has just closed, ticket sales were down 25 per cent on the last event in 2019. Why? Probably because Edinburgh is a malodorous and expensive place to visit but possibly because the ‘entertainment’ on offer is so joyless, so relentlessly finger-waggingly woke. Every show seems to be about gender or race or alternative modes of sexuality. It feels almost sinful to be white and male and heterosexual. There are drag queens everywhere demanding that you see their show and hear their bleating self-regard. The ‘comics’ who grin manically from their posters are wearyingly similar in tone. Every one has a manifesto: I know what’s wrong with the world – my truth – and you need to agree.

One who bucks this trend, Jerry Sadowitz, a brilliant sleight-of-hand magician and comedian who says unsayable things (example: ‘Nobody wants to go and see woke comedy. It’s like women’s football, it gets written about by the Guardian but it’s rubbish’) was cancelled by the Pleasance Theatre which apparently took his racism and homophobia seriously. Did they miss the point, or take fright? As fellow comic Richard Herring wrote on his blog, Sadowitz’s act is ‘a lot cleverer and deeper than he is being given credit for . . . to complain about him being offensive is like asking for the actor who plays Macbeth to be arrested for murder. His audience should know what they’re getting into, as should any theatre that books him’.

This sounds almost archaic now. More representative of the prevailing mood is the once-feted American comedienne and actress (I should write ‘comedian and actor’) who assaults us with a humour-free stream-of-consciousness rant. She positively drools with pleasure when she riffs on the theme of conservatives as racists, as evil, as something less than human. The highlight for many, eliciting whoops and cheers from the youthful audience, is when she recalls almost fighting with her sister who had been about to say something kind and generous about Trump supporters. ‘I would have smacked her in the mouth. She COULD NOT be allowed to finish that sentence!’

The most popular shows win gushing booster reviews from the Guardian. We must see Jen Ives, who promises to ‘sort out the the UK’s toxic rise in transphobia’. And Ania Magliono who ‘meditates on gender’, as does Chloe Petts. The unmissable Bilal Zafar offers  ‘gender bending comedy’ while ‘hilarious’ Jordan Brookes ‘focuses on promiscuity’ and is ‘relentlessly meta’. And don’t you dare miss Akeim Toussaint Buck, who explores the legacy of slavery and colonialism though contemporary dance, Happy Meal by Tabby Lamb, which tells us the uplifting story of a transitioning teen, or Shelf, a female duo whose show explores (that word again) ‘gender presentation, gender perception and misogyny’.

As Samuel Goldwyn said, ‘Include me out.’

Despite the nearly ubiquitous progressive agenda, there are still problems. Complying with the woke imperatives is like entering a booby-trapped maze with no exit. The Japanese-inspired play Tea Ceremony featured a white man in the lead role of a geisha. An activist group called BEATS (British East Asian and South East Asian Actors working in the Theatre and Screen industry) denounced the casting as an ‘extremely triggering and traumatic’ use of ‘unashamed yellow face’.

What is the point of the Edinburgh festival fringe? Once a laboratory for new ideas, some terrible, some excellent, with the best bubbling to the top of a rich and truly diverse concoction, the science is now settled. Acts no longer challenge the establishment, they are the establishment. There is little, if any, room for dissent. 

When the festival ended, the customary last-day fireworks were cancelled. No one seems to know the reason: maybe pyrotechnics are now deemed offensive.

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