“Your language is dead. It is forbidden. It is not permitted to speak your language in this place. You cannot speak your language to your men. It is not permitted. Do you understand? You may not speak it. It is outlawed. You may only speak the language of the capital. That is the only language permitted in this place. You will be badly punished if you attempt to speak your mountain language in this place. This is a military decree. It is the law. Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists. Any questions?” – “Mountain Language” (Harold Pinter)
Where do you draw the line when it comes to art? I found myself pondering this as I sat down to watch a ‘banned’ musical last week, as one does. After all, in a day and age when it seems like I can’t even browse my Facebook newsfeed over breakfast without seeing the latest atrocity video, censorship has itself, ironically enough, become taboo. And yet here I was, settling into my seat, ready to be shocked.
The incendiary production in question was ‘The City’ – a hip-hop musical inspired by Film Noir – which had been abandoned by its previous venues, who, fearing for their safety, had proved quite incapable of standing up for principles of free speech.
On the face of it, the controversy surrounding this ‘hip-hopera’ was quite curious. It was not intended as a critique, veiled or otherwise, of any government or politician. Not was there any chance that it might cause offence, intended or otherwise, to any religious or ethnic group.
Perhaps there was some more obscure reason, some sensitivity that might not be immediately obvious? Art, remember, does not exist within a vacuum. It would be impossible just from listening to The Ring Cycle to understand the debate that surrounds the performance of Wagner in Israel, for example. (Me? I think live classical music is always improved by the gentle background thrumming of an anti-semite spinning in his grave.)
The difficulty here is that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where The City was initially scheduled to be performed, is no shrinking violet. For many, especially stand-ups, The Fringe is a place to try out new and untested material, safe in the knowledge that anything goes. Punters are confronted with a bewildering array of choices, each one seemingly more bizarre then the next.
For example, one of the apparent highlights from this year was a monologue about intimate human/animal relations, titled “Awkward Conversations with Animals I’ve….” – I won’t include the last word, but it’s the Anglo Saxon for shtupped. I also read about one exhibit that consisted of a human zoo with caged black people (!), with the article in question dubbing it the most controversial entry of 2014.
With all due respect to The Guardian (it’s not often I get to write that), the human zoo was clearly not the most controversial entry, as I’ve already established. That honour went to The City, because, as you might have guessed – the performers were Israelis. So just to clarify: bestiality and racism were fair game. Something Hebrew-ish? Not so much.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t preventing someone performing based on their nationality a bit discriminatory? A touch racist? A little, you know, whatever that ‘A’ word that rhymes with critic is that we’re not supposed to use whenever anyone criticises Israel, legitimate or otherwise?
The boycotters claimed it was the fact that the troupe had received funding from the Israeli government, rather than their nationality, that led to the calls for this show to be cancelled. I wish I could believe them. I wish I could believe that their reaction to discovering the partial funding was one of dismay, that upon finding out about the tarnished shekels they began to proceed through the Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance that there would be no representatives of the Jewish state at this year’s Fringe.
I wish I could, but I don’t. Instead, I imagine as soon as they found out some Israelis had the temerity to visit they started visibly twitching with indignation, and only then starting rooting around for an excuse to try and justify their proposed actions.
So this is why the Incubator Theatre, the group behind The City, found their initial performance barracked by angry protesters. They were then unceremoniously dumped by their venue and reduced to performing silently on the street as a protest, the only sound being the chants of ‘Free Free Palestine!’ from the mob who – even in victory – continued to hound them. The loss of revenue meant that they were also out of the pocket to the (now muted) tune of tens of thousands of pounds.
At this point the ZF (Zionist Federation), as the leading Israel advocacy organisation in the UK, stepped in, partnering with the Israeli Embassy to secure new venues across the country for the theatre. And this is why I was in the audience for a sold-out performance last week in London.
Like I said at the start, it was sitting there in the dark when I first started pondering the question of art and freedom of speech and all that jazz. But I wasn’t pondering for long, as I was too busy being blown away by the amazing production developing in front of us.
Drenched in hardboiled noire and powered by boom-bap braggadocio, The City is like a fevered mix of Run-DMC and Raymond Chandler. It’s funny, clever, and gloriously, shamelessly silly. It’s also a major artistic feat. Given the sheer quality of lyrical verbiage, I was amazed to discover that the production was originally performed in Hebrew. Rhymes, cultural references, jokes (many of which revolve around word play) – all had to be built from scratch especially for this tour, given it was now performed in English.
What it isn’t is in any way political, or didactic, or allegorical, or even serious. Unless I missed something – admittedly some of the rapping was quite fast – there weren’t any references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one freestyled about the Jewish right to self-determination in the land of our forefathers. The Israeli Declaration of Independence was not soundtracked by beatboxing. Bibi did not get any props, mad or otherwise.
And in a way, this makes the attempted censorship of this production all the more distressing.
Traditionally, the attempt to restrict free speech in the public arena is done on the understanding that some views are so toxic that they contribute nothing of worth, and that those promoting them must be denied the oxygen of publicity. This was the reasoning behind the BBC refusing to air the voices of IRA terrorists during the Troubles, and the ‘No Platform’ policy in universities that denies space to the far right.
So when someone like George Galloway refuses to debate with an Israeli, on some level, I understand why. It’s reprehensible, yes, but it makes perfect sense to him. If you’re a demagogue who needs to convince an audience that everything Israel does is inherently evil, then the last thing you want is someone providing a counter-argument.
The attempts to purge anything and everything Israel-related from society (the Tricycle Theatre’s refusal to host a Jewish film festival due to funding from the Israeli government, George Galloway recently declaring the town of Bradford an “Israeli-free zone”) are indicative of a trend that sees any support for the Jewish state and its right to exist and defend itself as an unacceptable position.
But the banning of artists goes beyond that.
This isn’t an attempt to stop the general public being exposed to Israelis giving their perspectives on conflict, terrorism, peace etc. This is an attempt to stop the general public being exposed to Israelis full stop. Exposed to Israelis undefined by their relationship with the Palestinians, Israelis who are not simply talking heads on the news discussing the latest round of violence. Israelis who, whatever their feelings might have been towards Operation Protective Edge, are not the racist, heartless monsters they are all too frequently portrayed as.
There’s a famous quote by Bertolt Brecht: art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it. Much as I enjoyed The City, I don’t think it’s either. I don’t think it’s the kind of work that wants to change the world, and I don’t think it’s one that accurately reflects it. But I do believe that it could have served as a hammer to smash stereotypes about Israelis. It could have shown how, amidst all the chaos of the Middle East, a small group of them were willing to translate their production into another tongue and travel halfway across the world just to have the opportunity to entertain a town full of strangers. It could have shown Israelis who are not only extraordinary, but more importantly, ordinary too.
Instead, the whole affair has held up a mirror to the shocking levels of prejudice that the ZF are committed to combating. I’m proud of how we were able to work with our partners to rescue the Incubator Theatre and help arrange sold-out shows for them across the country. But the incident has highlighted how much more we have to do, because if our enemies have their way, soon no Israeli voice will be acceptable in this country – rapping or otherwise.