August 11, 2005

Edinburgh performers face delicate terrorism choice

By Paul Majendie

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Five weeks after the London bombings,
performers at the Edinburgh Fringe faced a stark choice --
should the topic of terrorism be out of bounds at the world's
largest arts festival?

Judging by the theme's prevalence on hundreds of often tiny
stages across the city, it appears that comedians, composers
and playwrights decided it would be self-censorship to duck the
issue, and audiences have backed them at the box office.

But one comic at least was forced to rewrite material in
light of the July 7 bomb attacks on London's transport system
by four British Muslim suicide bombers that killed 52 people.

Performers have been given full backing by Fringe Director
Paul Gudgin.

"It is absolutely right that what is covered in newspapers
and on television should be covered by the arts," he said.

British Indian comedian Paul Chowdhry sensed that audiences
expected him to tackle the subject.

"Comedy is a safety valve in itself," he said. "If you
start censoring your material, that's when you are restricting
yourself and freedom of speech."

Mocking his own appearance in his routine, he said:

"Everyone looks at me on the train. I couldn't get a seat
before. Now I get a whole carriage to myself, sometimes a whole

But Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell was forced at the last
moment to rewrite his Edinburgh show. He had a whole routine
about how no British Muslim would ever be fanatical enough to
become a suicide bomber.


The July 7 attacks and a second wave of failed bombings on
July 21 provoked last-minute soul-searching by the cast of
"Terrorist! The Musical" which tells how seven unemployed
terrorists become entertainers after President Bush wins the
so-called "war on terror."

"We were all in a state of shock when the attacks happened.
Suddenly terrorism was closer than ever," director Jessica Beck

"The cast had a three and a half hour meeting but decided
we would go ahead with it. The whole point of theater is to
provoke discussion."

So every night audiences are treated to the spectacle of
Leila Khaled, Carlos the Jackal and Patty Hearst singing along
to the chorus "You have got to kill for effect."

Kevin Burstein, composer of the opera "Manifest Destiny,"
about a would-be suicide bomber, felt life was imitating art.

"The potato we were holding is a lot hotter now," he said
of the opera about Leila who wants to avenge her Palestinian
father's death but ends up in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay.

"There was such a feeling of disbelief, how can this be
happening? The first bomber in London was called Omar, our
suicide bomber in the opera is called Omar."

"I do feel as if I am walking a tightrope. Al Qaeda was
like a distant force when we were writing this opera. But now
suddenly we are in the frontline," he told Reuters.

But Burstein and librettist Dic Edwards decided to go ahead
in Edinburgh, because "The message of our piece is that the
power of love is a more powerful weapon than violence."

For the writers of "Our Diaries through the Wall," the
Intifada diaries of 10 Palestinian schoolchildren, territory
that was new to so many was all too familiar.

Susan Atallah, their English teacher who brought them to
Edinburgh to act out a dramatization of their diaries, said:
"After a day of bombings and curfews, how could you teach
grammar when they were crying? So I told them to write their
feelings down."

"It is wonderful for them to be in Edinburgh and feel free
and not think about checkpoints," she told Reuters.