An £8.6 million mess in Edinburgh, anonymous playwright Ahlam, and three shows to see next week...
Plus: a new format for this newsletter.
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
And welcome, too, to a new format for this newsletter. From now on, I’ll be running a few different sections, including a slot on a topical story (this week: the £8.6 million of government money reportedly heading to the Edinburgh festivals), an interview with an emerging artist (this week: the anonymous writer Ahlam), a pick of three shows to see, plus a round-up of some other bits and bobs you might be interested in.
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A tiny bit more from me at the bottom – but let’s get on with this…
An £8.6 million mess
On Wednesday, in his Spring Budget, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced £8.6 million for “Scotland’s festival economy.” Of course, extra funding for the arts is usually welcome but in this case, it has provoked a whole raft of questions to which we have few answers at the moment. The main query is: what exactly does “Scotland’s festival economy” entail. I.e., who is actually getting this cash?
All the detail we have at present is this, lifted from the UK government’s budget:
“The government will provide up to £8.6 million for Scotland’s festival economy. Funding could help build a permanent headquarters for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival [sic.] and create year-round opportunities for local artists and talent across Edinburgh festivals [sic.].”
And a holding statement from the Edinburgh Fringe Society’s chief executive Shona McCarthy:
“It is hugely important that the Edinburgh Fringe, and the vital role that it plays in the UK's creative ecology, has been recognised by investment from the UK Government. We have been actively lobbying in Scotland and the UK for support to ease the many economic pressures that the festival is currently facing. We are enormously grateful for this significant funding and are in contact with the Scotland Office to understand more of the detail around today's announcement.”
The Scotsman’s Brian Ferguson, meanwhile, has reported that of the £8.6 million…
“… as much as £7m may be offered to the Fringe Society to help create a permanent new base in the city centre to bring performers, companies and arts industry workers together.”
The Edinburgh Fringe Society sort-of refuted this, tweeting:
“Following yesterday's announcement, there's still lots of detail to work through - we're not moving into plush new offices! We'll be able to share more info early next week. We understand the interest in the news, and are working quickly to answer questions that have been asked.”
Questions, questions. Who is distributing this £8.6 million? What will it actually be spent on? And why is it happening now? There are no firm answers to the first two for now. As to the third, my hunch is that the money is the result of both effective lobbying by Shona McCarthy and her organisation – and well done to them, if so – and the Tory party spying an opportunity to gain some political ground in Scotland after the SNP’s recent shoddy treatment of the country’s arts industry.
The biggest question on the lips of Edinburgh residents, though, is: is the Edinburgh Fringe really the most appropriate recipient of several million pounds of government money, when there are far more pressing issues for the city? Scotland’s arts sector is on choppy seas at the moment – witness the recent collapse of the much-loved Filmhouse cinema, the redundancies at Dance Base, and the temporary closure of one of the National Gallery of Modern Art’s main spaces. In the context of these calamities, funding the Fringe should be nowhere near the top of the list of priorities.
If Brian Ferguson’s reporting is right, though, and the bulk of this £8.6 million is going to the Fringe, then what will it be spent on? I was pleased to see the Edinburgh Fringe Society sort-of confirm that they were not planning on spaffing £7 million on brand new offices in the above tweet, but questions still remain – particularly because the budget explicitly mentions “a permanent headquarters for the Edinburgh Fringe.”
New premises should not be top of the Edinburgh Fringe Society’s list of priorities. There is, as far as I know, nothing wrong with its current base slap bang in the middle of the Royal Mile, and the festival has well-publicised issues around accommodation and affordability. It would be good to see £7 million put towards easing those problems instead. Last week, the Fringe Society revealed a new £100,000 fund to support artists staging work in Edinburgh this August. Why not pour some more money into that? Or, if it has to be spent on a capital project, why not spend it on constructing some sort of temporary, pop-up campsite for festival-goers?
The situation should become clearer over the next days and weeks. £8.6 million could go a long way, if used wisely. It could also go nowhere at all, if spent on some unnecessary, ill-thought-out folly.
Update: Since time of writing, the Edinburgh Fringe Society has posted this new statement on its website, which explains a tiny bit more, chiefly that the money will come from the UK Government’s capital investment fund, so must be spent on capital projects. That, according to the statement, does not mean a new HQ, but “the creation of a Fringe community hub,” whatever that actually entails. Check in The Stage for more updates over the following week.
Meet Ahlam, the anonymous winner of the Women’s Prize for Playwriting
A lot has happened in Egypt over the last 12 years. First came the Arab Spring protests and the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak. Then came the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Then the military coup of General Abdel al-Sisi, the country’s current president. Hope for a brighter, democratic future built, blossomed and then was brutally destroyed.
A generation of young people grew up amid all this. They experienced the highs and lows of the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, while they simultaneously experienced their first loves and went on journeys of teenage self-discovery. It is that generation that is at the heart of You Bury Me, the co-winner of the Women’s Prize For Playwriting, written by the anonymous playwright Ahlam.
“The play has been on a very long journey,” Ahlam says. “At first, I wanted to write about the absurdity of being young and falling in love in a police state. I started writing in 2015, though, and that was a really dark year. It was one year into the new military regime. People were disappearing. There were mass imprisonments. Morale was at an all-time low. 2015 was the year hope died.”
That darkness worked its way into Ahlam’s play, draft by draft. The final version – the version that co-won the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in December 2020, and is currently touring to Bristol, Edinburgh and London in a kinetic Paines Plough production directed by Katie Posner – follows six young people as they navigate their own emotional journeys and their new political reality simultaneously.
“The play is set in a fictional realm, but it is completely true,” Ahlam says. “The characters are not based on anyone in particular, but these things happened. Everyone has a friend with a rubber bullet lodged in their shoulder. Everyone knows what tear gas is like. There is an entire generation of us that were silly and young during these grand historical events that will be etched into us forever.”
Ahlam’s anonymity – the result of the Egyptian government’s targeting of dissidents abroad – makes her a tough interview. She reveals that she was not born in Egypt but grew up there and was there in 2011, in her early twenties, when the revolution happened. By 2015, she was living in the UK. Her writing career started here, and she has had several plays produced here over the last few years.
“You Bury Me got rejected by lots of theatres,” Ahlam says. “It got read by the Royal Court, the Bush, the Traverse, the Papatango Prize, the Bruntwood Prize and got rejected by them all. It is not easy to be a writer from another culture. It has got better over the last five years, but it is still not easy.”
“I find dealing with theatres harder than dealing with prizes,” she continues. “The relationship with theatres is a lot more complicated. You have meetings, phone calls, workshops, but never productions. You end up thinking: ‘Do you actually want to support me, or do you just want me added to the list of people you have supported?’ Prizes are easier. Either you win, or you don’t.”
“I have other ideas for plays,” Ahlam concludes. “Maybe I will use a pseudonym. Maybe I won’t. What I need most – like a lot of writers – is time and space and support. So often, you get support in little pockets. You get hopeful for a bit, then that hope dies for another year. What I’d really love is more constant support for writers. Then I could just go and live in a cabin somewhere and write.”
You Bury Me is at the Edinburgh Lyceum until tomorrow, then at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre from March 27 until April 22.
Three shows to see next week
After The Act - New Diorama Theatre, until April 1
Breach is the award-winning devising company that made It’s True, It’s True, It’s True about the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, along with several other superb shows. After The Act is its new musical exploring Section 28 – the 1988 legislation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” – and it is currently premiering at London’s mini-but-mighty New Diorama Theatre. You can read my interview with director Billy Barrett here, and you can book tickets using the button below.
Write-Off - Traverse Theatre, until March 25
The latest show from Glasgow’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint programme is Aodhan Gallagher’s Write-Off, and it is superb. A two-hander, featuring a grumpy older writer and a younger sensitivity reader, who are both gay, it crackles with sparkling dialogue, and treats knotty, thorny topics absorbingly and intelligently. You can read my write-up of it in in The Stage here, and get tickets for its Traverse Theatre run below.
The Children - Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, until March 25
I saw Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children when it premiered at the Royal Court a few years ago, and absolutely loved it. Set in Suffolk, it focusses on three retired physicists dealing with the aftermath of a meltdown at a nearby nuclear power station, but it is actually a brilliant metaphor for inter-generational angst. The beautiful Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds has rightly been earning acclaim lately, and Owen Calvert-Lyons’ revival starring Imogen Stubbs looks super. You can get tickets via the button below.
Shouts and murmurs
Here are some other bits and bobs that caught my eye this week, and that you might be interested in…
If you want a bit more on the situation with that £8.6 million of government funding headed to Edinburgh, then Rosie Aspinall Priest has got you covered in Bella Caledonia, and Brian Ferguson is all over it on Twitter.
Rebecca Frecknall, director of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, the Paul Mescal A Streetcar Named Desire, and that brilliant production of Summer and Smoke, is lovely legend. David Benedict has done a Big Interview with her in The Stage.
Atri Bannerjee is another extremely exciting, extremely nice director. He is directing Julius Caesar at the RSC, and he is also interviewed in The Stage this week, by Holly Williams. His Brutus, Thalissa Teixeira, was interviewed by David Jays in The Guardian, too.
Thanks for reading
That is it for this week. What did you think of the new format? You can let me know – and get in touch about any of the issues raised in this email, or anything at all, really - just by replying to this email. Or you can find me on Twitter, where I am @FergusMorgan.
A quick reminder of the various ways you can support The Crush Bar. You can share it. You can use it for promotional purposes. And you can subscribe. There are currently 1426 subscribers, 14 of whom are paid supporters. If you would like to join them, you can do so via the button below.
See you next week.