There is an unwritten rule on the Fringe that, unless the venue is packed, no one ever sits in the front three rows. It’s as if there is an invisible barrier beyond which no mortal may cross, a kind of embarrassment force field. Which is why, as a curmudgeon, I generally sit in the front row.
Yes, it does mean that you invite the attention of stand up comedians who’ll attack your dress sense and speculate about your sexual orientation. But just try answering back as if you are a German tourist and see what happens.
However, I went one step beyond the front row last week when I turned up to an event and actually became part of the show. It was an event at the first “Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace” (St Johns), chaired by the esteemed arts commentator, Brian Morton, exploring the predominance of religious themes at this Festival. Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and chair of the Scottish Arts Council, had been unable to make it. I was invited to take his place on the platform.
Now, this was ambitious casting since I’m an atheist who’s never voluntarily gone to church, let alone pontificated about the state of the human spirit. Fortunately, there were people who knew what they were talking about, not least in the audience. We discussed the decline of radical theatre and the search for values and meaning in the post-Marxist millennium, and other lofty themes.
Then I made the rather tendentious aside that, while the Judaeo-Christian morality may have been a foundation of civil society, there remains a dark side to religion, which is all too apparent in the Middle East. A heated debate ensued. I was taken task for failing too look behind the surface of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. It’s not about religion but about the occupied Palestinian territories, American foreign policy, the thirst for oil.
Funny, but that’s what I used to think too. Only I’ve been forced to the conclusion that religion, while perhaps not the sole cause of these conflicts, really does make them peculiarly difficult to resolve because of the unholy passions released. Something to do with jealous Gods and golden calves; martyrdom and 72 virgins. The assurance of a afterlife does make people less concerned about their longevity in this world.
Anyway, anyone who’s interested in the interplay of religion and politics, the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, should take a look at the programme at St Johns. And I promise they won’t have to listen to me. Tomorrow Moazzeem Begg will be speaking about his incarceration in Guantanamo Bay. David Greig, Jo Clifford, Karen Armstrong will be looking at everything from sex and religion to the women and Islam. And a week tomorrow, the comedian Bill Bailey will be trying to discuss humour, religion and cartoons - hopefully without sparking another Jihad.
But what of the premise: that faith is invading the Festival this year? Well, there ‘s no shortage of shows on religious themes - I counted over sixty. Something’s clearly going on , though it’s too early to conclude that spirituality is occupying the space left by politics.
However, I’m not sure if it’s particularly good news for the Festival, because none of the religious-theme shows I’ve seen so far have given me much to write home about. “Mary and the Stripper” (Hill Street Theatre) is an interesting attempt to recast the story of Mary Magdalene in Soho, which failed to convince, despite being based on a real story and having a ‘saved’ ex-stripper in the cast. “We Don’t Know Shi’ite” (Underbelly) is a review based on the cast’s experience of trying to understand Islam, which I’m afraid rather lived up to its title. The project foundered on its attempts to ‘understand’ aspects of Islam like the subjection of women, creationism, homophobia.
The Egyptian comic Omar Marzouk (Pleasance), who has a fine track record of poking fun at obscurantism, rather lost my sympathy this year by declaring his support for the censorship of those Danish cartoons of the prophet. Elsewhere, the Black-Jew Dialogues (CVenue 34) tries intelligently to exploration of the competitive victim culture of Jewish and Afro-Americans groups. But as comedy it didn’t quite achieve lift off.
It all left me wondering whether religion has a dampening effect - like Bob Dylan after he fund God in 1978. But my faith was partially restored by “Jesus the Guantamo Years” (Underbelly). This extended sketch about Christ coming back as a stand up comedian, and being incarcerated as a suspected terrorist, contained some brilliant material, including a wicked reworking of the Monty Python Parrot Sketch with a man bringing back a dud Messiah. “If he hadn’t been nailed to the cross, he’d be pushing up the daisies”.
Offensive perhaps, but the show contained a moral message: that humour is an expression of the human spirit, and laughter unites rather than divides. Which perhaps why fundamentalists aren’t funny.