Religious satire takes center stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe has descended on the Scottish capital - and many of the performers have religion on their minds.

mel smith 88 (photo credit: google)
mel smith 88
(photo credit: google)
The Edinburgh Fringe has descended on the Scottish capital - and many of the performers have religion on their minds. Now in its 60th year, the Fringe bills itself as the world's largest arts festival, a wildly eclectic smorgasbord of more than 1,800 shows put on by 17,000 performers in 260 venues around the city. The key to the Fringe is democracy. Anyone can register, pay a fee, find a venue and put on a show. The results range from Shakespeare to standup comedy to the Moscow State Circus to the Ladyboys of Bangkok. This year, dozens of shows tackle religious themes and fault lines, from The Black Jew Dialogues to Jesus: The Guantanamo Years to Danish-Egyptian comedian Omar Marzouk's standup routine about the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy. Western ignorance of Islam is examined in We Don't Know Shiite, while Australian comic Wil Anderson's show includes digs at the Catholic Church, including a send-up of the late Pope John Paul II. "Wil did warn the audience that he was about to lay into the Catholic Church and he also apologized if he caused offense. I think that's the right way to deal with it," said Nadine Arber, a friend of Anderson's who attended a recent performance. The shows may ruffle some believers, but the Rev. Donald Reid, a spokesman for the Festival of Spirituality and Peace - a religious gathering that runs alongside the Fringe - said the focus on religion should be welcomed. "This is surely a reflection of a remarkable upsurge in a thirst for faith and spirituality," he said. "Artists are testing the boundaries of how far they can go ... But religion should be able to be commented on and its absurdities pointed out." Another provocative show is Breasts and Burgers, a play in which the American flag is ripped apart onstage each night. Cecile Shea, the U.S. consul in Scotland, has said the play could cause hurt to ordinary Americans, but director Richard Franklin defended it as a comment on freedom of speech. "This is about free speech, and the most serious thing to come out of the war on terror is the excuse to create legislation against this freedom," Franklin told the Herald newspaper. "It is a symbolic thing and is intended as such." The Fringe, which runs through Aug. 28, is the biggest in a group of arts festivals that draw 750,000 visitors to the Scottish capital every August. Later in the month come the book festival, the film festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the high-culture, invitation-only Edinburgh International Festival, which inspired the breakaway Fringe in 1947. The Fringe now dwarfs its sister festivals - last year 1.3 million tickets were sold for Fringe shows. Oddly, the biggest controversy so far this year has been over a cigar. Actor Mel Smith, starring in a play about the late cigar-smoking Prime Minister Winston Churchill, threatened to spark up a stogie onstage - a crime in Scotland, which outlawed smoking in enclosed public spaces earlier this year. William Burdett-Coutts, who runs the Assembly Rooms where the play, Allegiance, is being staged, said officials had threatened to shut him down if Smith smoked. "During the scene, Mel got the cigar and a lighter out, but then he put them down to the side," Burdett-Coutts said Monday, the play's opening day. "I think it's absurd. In the context of an international festival like this, it's crazy. It's integral to the part of Churchill and it doesn't affect other people - it's just absurd."