I did lots of different things during the Edinburgh International Festival - I experienced new music, radical theatre, new artists. Much of it was excellent, a little was dreadful.
But it was also the first time I was searched as I went into a ballet performance, and was questioned where and when I bought my ticket; where I had my bottle of water confiscated; and saw a punch up - well, nearly - between members of the audience.
This was because - purely by chance - I had decided way back in July to see Batsheva Dance Company
: when I was selecting what I wanted to see, I had nothing going on in the last weekend, more or less, and thought Batsheva sounded interesting.
Much more than I had expected.
Batsheva are an Israeli dance company, and on the back of a comment by the the Israeli foreign ministry that they were "good representatives for the state of Israel" (or something), they attracted the attention of pro-Palestinian demonstrators
, who claimed that Batsheva's appearance at the festival was sponsored by the Israeli government. (This was denied by the EIF, though I can't find a link to it!) They are apparently part funded by the Israeli government, though.
By the time I went to the theatre, I was aware of this - I'd seen this piece about an earlier performance on the BBC's website
. I even thought the performance might have been cancelled. Since it wasn't, I thought I'd head out there.
I did think about staging my own personal boycott; but having bought a ticket, I'd rather not waste my money. And I was of course curious. But I also believe strongly in freedom of expression, and I wanted to judge Batsheva on their artistic merits.
There was a large picket outside - perhaps one hundred protesters or so, held back by the police. I took a leaflet handed to me - I am largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause (and have been for over thirty years, since I visited Israel in 1979 and was shocked by the Israeli treatment of Palestinians). On the way into the Playhouse, I was asked where and why I bought my ticket, and I was searched.
There was only a small audience inside: the theatre was perhaps a third full, and I thought about moving to a more expensive seat closer to the stage - it was only the idea that my action might be miscontrued by the many security guards stationed around the auditorium that stopped me.
The dance itself was interesting but frankly beside the point. Every five minutes or so, a member of the audience stood up and shouted slogans such as "Free Palestine!", "Palestinian blood in on your hands!" (I wasn't sure if that was aimed at the audience or the dancers), and "Boycott Israel!"
Each time they did, the music stopped, the dancers stopped, the lights would come up and security guards would move to the still-shouting demonstrator and bundle them out of the nearest exit.
Then the lights would go down, the music start where it had left off, and the dance recommence.
The demonstrators were scattered throughout the auditorium, which meant that I spent much of the time wondering where the next disturbance would come from. Other members of the audience were more active, remonstrating with the demonstrators. One non-demonstrating sympathiser got up and remonstrated with a foolish and ignorant remonstrator who had said loudly "What a fuss for a handful of Palestinians"; they faced off to each other, nose-to-nose, hurling insults and punches. I had never seen a punch up at the ballet before.
As each demonstrator was forcibly removed, many in the audience applauded, though I wasn't sure if they were applauding the demonstrator or the security guards. I tried to keep my opinions open. I felt most immediate sympathy for the dancers - the stop-start deanimation must have been hard, especially cooling down for a few minutes before the lights fell and the music started again. They deserved the applause.
At the end of the performance - which even with six or seven disturbances came in at less than an hour (it may of course have been cut short) - we were directed to leave by a specific exit to avoid the protest outside; there were a lot of police about.
I will admit to having mixed feelings about the whole thing. The demonstrators had to buy tickets to get into the theatre to demonstrate, so they were actively supporting the company they were protesting about. It was unclear who they were directing their attack at - the company or the audience. Had they wanted to stop the performance, they could easily have done so (if you want to empty a theatre quickly, just hit the fire alarm - the performance will stop, and won't start again). All they succeeded in doing was pissing off potential supporters - most of the audience turned against the pro-Palestinians. If they simply wanted publicity, they got that by protesting outside - the BBC picked up on that after the first night.
The protest inside the theatre seemed to achieve nothing.
It was all quite bizarre, and I'm pretty sure a wasted opportunity.
Still, I won't bother going along to Batsheva when they perform at the Festival Theatre
in a couple of weeks.