Summerhall’s army@TheFringe: An Affront to the Arts or an Ambitious Alliance?
Image Credit: Tim Cross

The Army has set up camp for the first time at the Fringe and is stationed with Summerhall in its own premises. The move is not without its critics, but its contribution to the Fringe is welcomed by many. They invite us to join them for a ‘cutting-edge performance programme sparking conversations about what the Army is and what it stands for in twenty first-century society’. Richard Beck inspects the front line.

In no way do they fight shy of exposing the discomfort, pain, suffering and life-long consequences of military service

When I heard that the Army would be at the Fringe I imagined it had embarked upon a campaign for inclusion and that performances would be given by active soldiers who had somehow formed dance or drama groups and were now geared up to entertain. The reality has turned out to be quite different. The shows are not performed by recruits and the idea was to a large extent the culmination of one woman’s ambition.

Rosie Kay set up her own dance company in 2004, with which she toured internationally. In 2007 she suffered the dancer’s nightmare – a leg injury – that caused her to question why people put themselves at physical risk for their work. At the same time she saw, on the news, injured soldiers in Iraq and decided that she needed to bring her choreographic experience to bear on the issue.

After some tough negotiating and powerful persuasion, Kay was invited to join The 4th Battalion The Rifles for two weeks and experienced full battle exercises on Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain. Later she visited the military rehabilitation centre, Headley Court, to see the effects of conflict and training on the soldiers’ bodies. 5 Soldiers, subtitled The Body is the Front Line emerged from those encounters and was premiered in 2008. Rehearsal preparation involved the dancers spending several days of army exercise and engaging in discussion with soldiers. Kay’s programme notes describe the work as ‘an intimate view of the training that prepares soldiers for the sheer physicality of combat, for the possibility of injury, and the impact conflict has on the bodies and minds of everyone it reaches. The piece has a powerful physicality, moments of humour and is full of honesty, all inspired by input from serving and former soldiers’.

Kay believes ‘the arts make you confront issues’ attaching particular importance to the ‘consequences of leadership’. In 5 Soldiers she saw the opportunity to use dance as a cathartic experience for those in uniform and to change ‘perceptions of the soldier in the mind of the general public, allowing soldiers to be seen as humans and individuals, showing the sheer effort and physical work involved, and touching people with a deep understanding and portrayal of the life of a soldier’.

Not content with leaving it as a work for casual audiences Kay continued to talk with the Army about a collaboration. Brigadier Gary Deakin, Brigade Commander 51st Infantry Brigade and Army Headquarters Scotland, was the man whom she ultimately convinced.

Deakin has now taken up the cause of bringing the arts and Arny together. Speaking proudly of the project, he maintains that their venue has attracted ‘an outstanding programme of talented artists across a spectrum of genres, who will draw from history and more recent experiences to stimulate conversations about war, conflict and our people living and working in Defence today’. He believes that ‘by opening our doors we aim to open festival-goers’ minds to our diverse and inclusive family culture and the powerful bonds of belonging.’

This soft-touch, socially worthy message is precisely what has concerned critics of the Army’s involvement with the Fringe. Writing in Bella Caledonia Catrin Evans sees this venture in conjunction with Summerhall as support for ‘the mainstreaming of militarism within UK’. ‘I feel a deep discomfort with the presence of a new venue run, resourced and managed by the British Army,’ she says. Her objection asserts that there is ‘little or no space for the narratives of the people affected by, or in opposition to, the actions of the armed forces’. She goes on to ask, ‘How can we genuinely have an in-depth critical debate about what the army stands for if the shows, the staff, and the entire atmosphere of the venue are being stage-managed by the military itself?’.

I had similar misgivings at first, but having seen the productions on offer I now think her argument is overstated. True, nothing deals directly with the consequences of war for civilians and displaced populations and there are no overt condemnations of militarism, but neither are these performances what she regards as a ‘live advert for the military’. In no way do they fight shy of exposing the discomfort, pain, suffering and life-long consequences of military service and certainly do not glorify it. The test will be in future years to see if companies are able or choose to perform in this venue and present plays that, in reference to wars and the military, and in her words, ‘scrutinise the agendas, geopolitical drivers and material consequences of our participation in these so-called necessary conflicts’.

The venue and performing space has inevitably had immediate appeal to companies with productions related to military life, but there was no sense in which the Army hand-picked them or that they were coerced into performing there. The choice of a site was a matter for companies wanting to use the Summerhall brand and organisation for their production and agreeing the best venue.

The outcome has been remarkable in terms of the programme that is now on offer. The Last Post is based on ‘one man’s love letters from the front line’. In Between The Crosses ‘a WWI veteran …. speaks to his great nephew from beyond the grave in a recorded interview’ giving his account of life with soldiers and horses at Ypres and the Somme. This Is My Life relates a young man’s time at home and school after his father is deployed with the Royal Marines. Wired is ‘the story of a young woman soldier’s journey through post-traumatic stress’. There is also an exhibition, Military Families, that developed from a photographic and audio project in which families shared ‘conversation, letters, personal stories and family photographs’. Still dealing with people in uniform, Stand By examines ‘the relationships forged through the stress of the job and the turmoil of being caught between following orders and protecting themselves’ as four police officers sit in a riot van wondering what will happen next. Standing alone in this context, What If I Told You is a participatory experience that explores ‘boundaries, personal histories, gender and race’ along with the story of James Sims, ‘self-ascribed father of modern gynecology who operated on slaves without anaesthetic’.

Whether we like it or not, the armed forces are part of society. We can discuss the rights and wrongs of particular engagements and aspects of conduct in the field but few would argue for the total abolition of all military forces in the current international climate. Yet for civilians who have never lived with bombs falling around them or had members of the military in their family, the constituent forces often remain aloof institutions seen only in formal dress at parades or in news clips from engagements in distant lands.

In response to Evans’ question, ‘Have we have now reached a point where militarism is so insidious that it can seamlessly be thrown into a traditionally liberal, anti-establishment set up like the Fringe and not only go unnoticed but actually be welcomed by major creative players?’ my answer may not be to her liking. I think that the contribution of the Army has not gone unnoticed: theatre groups have welcomed and taken advantage of their splendid facilities and audiences have flocked to see the productions.

A word of warning should you be inclined out of curiosity or the appeal of the shows to visit. Before you start rushing off to Summerhall, this venue is the [email protected] in Association with Summerhall and is on the opposite side of town at the Army Reserve Centre in East Claremont Street.

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