Stephen Greer: Heard the one about Hiroshima?

August 12, 2005

Political Animal, Smirnoff Underbelly
Edinburgh Festival Fringe, until August 28, £10.50

Though the festival organisers have announced that this year's shows are more political than ever before, it is still hard to place Political Animal . The Edinburgh fringe certainly has a determined tradition of such theatre, whether it be performances addressing the war in Iraq, high-school shootings in the US or internment without trial. Companies such as the Riot Group have built a reputation on bringing political plays to the festival, and more than a few new productions take the 60-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima as a starting point. And therein lies the problem - the genre tends to deal with material that is hard to laugh at. So as political comedy, Political Animal has to argue the case that the serious is not automatically the opposite of the comic. In fact, the more awful the political reality, the closer we might find ourselves to laughing.

With Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver acting as hosts, the evening was punctuated by stabs at electoral apathy, with both reminding the audience that laughter from a mere 35 per cent of them was officially enough to confirm a very funny joke. Of the three comics on show, Andre Vincent relied slightly heavily on material intended to shock, "dark stuff" presumably to shake people out of their complacency.

Though it held our interest, I wonder if this kind of approach leaves an audience rather more secure in its own beliefs; at the very least, it relies on there always being something that a comic can rail against for effect. A public converted to your point of view can no longer be shocked.

Will Hodgson presented a rather different approach, a low, near-monologue delivery in a West Country accent topped with a fairly impressive electric pink mohawk. He was confrontational in a different manner from Vincent, and carefully led the audience into his own sharpened view of the world (and the image of militant dykes chasing misogynist "straights" will probably linger).

Chris Addison's act (running third and therefore topping of the bill in the invisible hierarchy of comedy) was perhaps the most successful, matching the pursuit of the popular stereotype of the Daily Mail reader with a more acute needling of the audience's own comfortable prejudices.

The difficulty seems to be that some of the comedy in Political Animal serves only to confirm what the audience already knows. In effect, issues become more risible and appear less consequential: the relief of laughter is a substitute for action. Like a Bakhtinian carnival, it's a release on social pressures that avoids any real change.

Yet, while not linked to a particular cause or issue such as Amnesty International's Stand Up for Freedom events, there is still something going on here. Political Animal breeds a kind of comedy that leaves you feeling uncomfortable and unnerved that a painful record in war abroad or immigration at home should ultimately be reduced to laughing matter.

Maybe there is a lost link to a classical convention where we find comedy amid tragedy but, regardless of heritage, it is an event that unearths a working connection between the stuff of traditional stand-up and contemporary politics. Though I'm not sure it sets out to produce any grand change in its audience, the packed-out venue suggests that Political Animal is feeding a healthy public appetite.

Stephen Greer is a PhD student at Edinburgh University, researching political theatre.

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