Sunday, 28 April 2013

Thoughts on Mayfesto

The Mayfesto programme is mercurial - starting off as an explicitly political selection of work, it has adapted to the shifting interests of the times, and has landed on Identity as this year's theme. As Andy Arnold recently pointed out in an interview, May is a time of political activity: the festival's movement from its first year towards the individual probably reflects a broader preoccupation with personal as political.

Then again, old school activism has its moments: Over The Wire goes back to 1974 and a riot in a prison  - like The Sash, now touring, it is a reminder of how the early 1970s saw "the Irish question" hit the headlines. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a success from Fringe 2012, is a timely look at the impact of Apple on its workers (yep, that MacBook was made with sweatshop labour but the integration of web browsing and word processing excuses it, doesn't it?).

However, there are plenty of shows that focus on issues closer to home, and less concerned with the global. Jenna Watt's Flaneurs wonders about the by-stander effect, where large crowds will ignore acts of violence, and was inspired by a friend being attacked in 2010. Jukebox is Ankur's celebration of the Asian Diaspora and Bandwagon aims to tell "the story of mass hysteria... and learning who you are in the process." Putting Words in My Mouth  is about the ethics of eating.

Of course, all of these offerings connect to wider questions, but they lack the overarching sense of agenda that marked much political theatre in the past. For all the talk of a resurgence of the political, the grand themes of agit-prop are now background tones in a canvas that emphasises more immediate matters.

On one level, it appears timid. Thanks to the Con-Dem government, inequality and corrupt thinking are more prevalent and obvious than at any time in recent memory. Without suggesting for one moment that the politicians of this country are materially corrupt, the British government's insistence on austerity has seen a comprehensive attack on the state's obligation to support the less fortunate. Even the consensus politics of the 1970s inspired more artistic rage.

However, there's a logic to this: Steve Jobs might be a naughty man, but he would not have managed to be so naughty if consumers had not bought his production. The Dalai Lama advertised his products (despite this little irony). When No Logo was all the rage, it concluded that the complicity of the individual in the conspiracy of the multi-nationals was inevitable.

None of this means that raging against the machine is pointless - just conflicted. Grand statements are compromised, and homing in on matters closer to daily life allows a more nuanced response. Flaneurs opens up the problems of responsibility (and the bystander effect was, of course, based on the case of Kitty Genovese, which reveals that this is not a new problem). Where a Big Statement about the injustice of the government is emotionally satisfying (those comments I made about Cameron's gang made me feel bold and warm inside), thinking about how I behave in daily life is far more likely to lead to change.

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