Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics @ The Underbelly Topside (Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015) Review

Director Cressida Brown has commissioned work from eight renowned playwrights to create Walking the Tightrope. Performed by four actors taking on multiple roles, the production is formed of a collection of short plays written in response to the cancellation of three cultural events in Summer 2015. These were cancelled due to the political friction that was caused – or could have potentially been caused – by their going ahead. However, what Brown’s show questions, without attempting to find an easy conclusion, is whether we should be able to put such limitations on art.

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Despite the serious subject matter, there are many laughs to be had. Mark Ravenhill’s What are we going to do about Harry? is a neatly structured conversation between a theatre administrator and a middle class mother who wants her son to be on the latest intern programme, despite his lack of qualifications. Melissa Woodbridge perfectly conveys the outrage of one who believes that giving money to the theatre entitles her son to a foot in the door, whilst Naomi Ackie gives a sympathetic turn as the morally compromised administrator.

Equally successful is Re:Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, which imagines the scenario of a black woman unknowingly auditioning to be part of an exhibit about colonial atrocities rather than a play. Inspired directly by the closure of a South African artist’s exhibition at the Barbican, the scene uses comedy to frame the racial tensions that were stirred up by this event to brilliant effect.

Some of the other scenes have less impact, including Neil LaBute’s Exhibit A. A black artist (Syrus Lowe) welcomes the audience to look at his exhibit, a drugged white woman (Woodbridge) who is to be the apparently consensual victim of his sexual abuse as an expression of the fight for racial equality. Whilst LaBute does address both racial and gender divides, and asks us to question if such potentially offensive art should be allowed, the scene itself is ineffective. Lowe’s artist is presented too clearly as a villain to raise any kind of conflict within the mind of an audience, and moreover his abuse of Woodbridge’s victim seems more for shock value than allowing for real exploration of a contentious issue.

Walking the Tightrope raises some interesting points about the conflict between politics and art, meaning that the programmed post-show talk certainly has enough material to stimulate discussion. The actors give generally assured performances, despite not always being the appropriate age for their role. Yet our investment in the scenes is limited by their brevity, whilst characters at times have to be written as stereotypes in order to communicate their author’s message concisely. So although Brown has created a great platform for a debate about art, the art itself lacks sufficient complexity. 3/5

Review written by Holly Kilpatrick.

Walking the Tightrope: The Tension Between Art and Politics is currently showing at the Underbelly Topside as part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival until Monday 31st August. For more information on the production, visit here…

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