Is Jonathan Mills censoring the EIF?

Sir Jonathan Mills has a lot to answer for. Ahead of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), he has declared there will be no works which address the issue of Scottish independence – Mills has instead declared that the festival will remain “politically neutral”. To me, this just smacks of cowardice.

Art and politics have always had a close relationship, with theatre and performance in particular proving to be powerful means of expression; ideologies have been challenged, leaders lampooned and revolutions documented throughout the course of theatrical history. Due to the impact these issues have on people’s day-to-day lives, politics are a fertile breeding ground for artists to mine when creating work – and the strength of conviction people often have around these issues helps create powerful, moving and provocative work. So, for Jonathan Mills to tell artists they should not create work for the festival which covers Scottish independence – a huge issue for those living and working north of the border – is tantamount to censorship.

Surely the EIF – which provides an opportunity to present work on an international stage – should be celebrating its importance to the Scottish cultural landscape? Political work will naturally divide audiences and critics – particularly when it is focusing on issues which many people will have strong opinions about – but there is a sense of importance that the arts address these issues and provoke such debate. We live in a time where political machinations are exposed to us on a daily basis, and where we are almost encouraged to challenge and question what we are told – this is a hugely important aspect of the developed world operating under a largely democratic system, but has also been vital to the changes in regimes and overthrowing of dictatorships in situations such as those across the Arab Spring. This is not to say that the arts can truly have the power to inspire such huge change, but they can still have an important role to play in encouraging people to question their leaders, and to think about political issues more deeply.

What are Mills’ reasons for imposing this form of censorship on the EIF programme? He explains that the planning for the 2014 festival had to begin far in advance of knowing what the result of the referendum may be, but surely artists have the ability to be reactive to events as they happen? In many regards, creating a piece of work around a developing story can make for an exciting process for artists and companies – it will obviously come with its difficulties, but this can be looked at as an opportunity rather than a problem. Within the same statement, Mills also suggests that the Edinburgh Fringe is better placed to address the independence issue – but considering the often vast difference in resources available to companies operating on the Fringe as opposed to those taking part in the EIF, from a practical point of view at least this seems a strange argument to make.

Perhaps what Mills is implying is that artists and companies on the Fringe do not have to worry about the political ramifications their EIF counterparts do? Whereas the EIF and a number of its participants are in receipt of state funding in some form, many companies on the Fringe do not – and subsequently, do not feel reliant upon it or beholden to the funders. Fringe companies could be argued to feel more liberated in terms of their artistic expression, and therefore more likely to create work which is politically provocative , whereas state-funded companies may be risk-averse in order to not cause political rifts between themselves and their effective paymasters. But shouldn’t state funding operate under an arm’s-length policy? Huge questions would need to be asked if funding bodies started to dictate too clearly that work which is politically provocative would be less likely to be funded than work which celebrates the current political climate – but are Mills’ restrictions on the work he will commission for the 2014 EIF indicative that there is at least a fear on behalf of companies in the current climate that their funding could be at risk if they are too provocative?

To me, that last questions is a red herring; I would contend that if the work is intelligently presented and of a high standard, then it will be celebrated and judged on these merits by audiences, critics and stakeholders – not censored and censured by them. Besides, should companies, artists or venues feel that there is pressure being exerted by outside forces on them regarding their artistic output, do they not have a responsibility to their peers and their audiences to address and challenge this? If they have enough faith in the work they deliver, then they should continue to present this – not bow to pressure and play things safe.

History has shown that theatre with a political edge can be hugely successful, be it addressing historical issues or relevant to the current era; from Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI to National Theatre of Wales’ current production The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, through Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot, some hugely successful and celebrated productions have been borne out of a desire to shed light on political ideologies, policies and their effects on everyday people. The example of Belarus Free Theatre shows just how dangerous censorship can be on artists, both in terms of on their everyday lives and how it can inspire them even further to tell the world their stories; any censorship on artistic ideas seems wrong, and Jonathan Mills should at least thing more deeply about why he is really not commissioning such work before speaking again.

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2 Responses to “Is Jonathan Mills censoring the EIF?”

  1. Chris Carter Says:

    You have a very wide definition of “censorship” if it can consist of not commissioning something! EIF theatre is usually rather, er, mixed in quality anyway. Let the Traverse do it – they’ll do it better anyway.

    • I can understand that censorship may seem a broad term in this instance, but I do feel it’s valid. For Jonathan Mills to come out and state there will be no pieces on independence suggests there must have been some calls for this type of work to be included – whether that be from artists, audiences or other stakeholders, is there perhaps a responsibility to listen to them? It seems strange that this issue would be raised if no-one was talking about it beforehand, particularly if the commissioning process is typically quite open…

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