Artists shouldn’t be political? Here’s a show that challenges Britain’s creeping censorship | Brian Logan

Arts Council England unleashed fury in February when an update to its policies warned arts companies, and those who work for them, against making “overtly political or activist” statements. Here was confirmation of what many in the arts already knew, which is that – whether by scrutineers from the left or the right – limits are being erected around what we can say and do in our work. This week, the Arcola theatre in Dalston, east London, addresses this phenomenon on stage, with Cutting the Tightrope: The Divorce of Politics from Art, a collection of short plays (written in a month, rehearsed in a fortnight) in response to warnings that artists shouldn’t be political.

In practice, that response takes two forms. I expected the evening’s focus to be, as billed, on freedom of speech and the artist’s right (obligation?) to be political. Sure enough, that’s the focus of some of the evening’s vignettes. There’s a farcical sketch, spliced between the short plays, about a frantic theatre manager (Joel Samuels) chasing politics off his stage. Two plays show cautious programmers rejecting too-hot-to-handle scripts (“Send me the play: we might have a one-day reading in the basement”).

In another scene, a theatre director (Jess Murrain) is released from jail to coach Mark Oosterveen’s dictator on the delivery of his victory speech. Among these sometimes broad, always heartfelt, scenarios, it’s not always clear which scenes depict 2024 reality, and which imagine a more oppressive future – which may be the point.

Sara Masry in Cutting the Tightrope. Photograph: David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

A further play (all are written anonymously, by writers including Hassan Abdulrazzak, Sonali Bhattacharyya and Sami Abu Wardeh) depicts a politically engaged woman having to bite her lip on a visit to her boyfriend’s parents – because strong opinions make everyone feel a bit uncomfortable, don’t they?

That’s part of the problem today: we’re all so scared of offending somebody, many opt to not say much at all. The bigger part, though, is more or less explicit censorship, in the form of that Arts Council diktat, or Scotland’s much-criticised new hate crime act, or the idea, as proposed by Suella Braverman, that flying a Palestinian flag might be a criminal offence.

The latter cause is of greatest concern to the artists involved in Cutting the Tightrope, which, as the night proceeds, tightens its focus on current events in Gaza. The majority of the plays depict or discuss the plight of the Palestinians, sometimes with one eye on Brits’ freedom of speech, but just as often as an end – a moral obligation, even – in itself.

At Monday’s post-show discussion (the panellists change nightly), the focus was almost exclusively not on “the divorce of politics from art”, but on the question of artists’ responsibilities in the face of atrocity in Palestine. The idea that we might be here to discuss western freedom of speech was dismissed, by Palestinian writer Ahmed Masoud among others, as so much self-indulgence. We need to talk about Gaza, not updates to Arts Council policies.

That feels like a swerve from what’s been advertised – but a legitimate one. Get a bunch of artists in a room (particularly at the Arcola, which has always championed Turkish and Middle Eastern voices) and ask them to explore the restrictions on their freedom of expression, and what do you expect? Navel-gazing, or a laser-like focus on the one subject they’re all haunted by right now, and which they feel – partly as a result of freedom of speech restrictions – is being publicly under- and misrepresented?

The result is an opinionated, entertaining and urgent evening that doesn’t just grapple with lofty questions about art and politics, but that asks (of itself, and of us) what art can do, right now, in the face of the Gaza emergency.

The Guardian

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