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Scottish Independence Takes Center Stage at Edinburgh Theater Festivals

With Scotland voting next month on whether to claim independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, polls suggest that the unionist No voters hold the majority. But to judge from this year’s editions of the Edinburgh International Festival (wrapping up Aug. 31) and the Edinburgh Fringe (which ended Aug. 25), the victory goes to the separatist Yes, with a string of performances tackling Scottish identity by touching on everything from Bowie to “Braveheart.”

That 1995 Mel Gibson movie makes young performance artist Rachael Clerke (pictured, above) feel Scottish, she tells the audience in “How to Achieve Redemption as a Scot through the Medium of Braveheart.” Her thoughtful, quirky approach to the issue sees her struggling to pin down the slippery concept of national identity.

Having decided as an idealistic teenager that she wanted to be a “citizen of the world,” the Edinburgh-born performer eventually realized she couldn’t deny her Scottishness and so set out on a quest to find an appropriate role model. It entails dressing up as Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, U.S. entrepreneur Donald Trump and, finally, Gibson as “Braveheart” character William Wallace.

David Bowie, meanwhile, figured in to the debate in “All Back to Bowie’s,” a show inspired by the singer’s plea, “Scotland, stay with us,” at the music industry’s Brit Awards in February. The joke from the Yes campaign was to take it as an invitation from Bowie to come and stay at his house.

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From that grew “All Back to Bowie’s,” a daily discussion and performance at Edinburgh’s Stand in the Square organized by a group of artists including playwright David Greig, author of the book of West End tuner “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Adopting a cabaret format, each performance included an audience ballot on the pronunciation of Bowie’s surname, a guest poet and songwriter, a political provocation and an interview with a prominent thinker or celebrity. (These included Hollywood actor Brian Cox who, after arguing the case for self-determination, took the opportunity to pay tribute to his friend Robin Williams who had died the day before. )

Based on the evidence of one performance toward the end of the festival, “Bowie’s” proved a worthy endeavor, encouraging an outward-looking discussion that sidestepped the black/white extremes of the polarized debate audiences might have expected.

Also among the guests to appear in “All Back to Bowie’s” was novelist and playwright Alan Bissett, whose broad comedy “The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant” played to large auds at the Assembly Rooms. With a cast including Elaine C. Smith, famous in Scotland for her role in long-running TV comedy “Rab C. Nesbitt,” the play imagined a campaign against independence by the country’s mythological creatures.

As Bissett sees it, Scotland’s banshees, bogles and selkies are frightened that nobody will believe in them if they allow the nation to “become real.” The clever idea, delivered in a broad-brushstroke manner, proved a crowdpleasing one, and when given the chance at the end of the show, the audience voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Envisioning the outcome of that scenario was playwright John McCann in the premiere of his play “Spoiling” at the Traverse Theater. This two-hander takes place a short while after a successful independence vote, when a symbolically pregnant government minister (in a sparkling performance by Gabriel Quigley) had to negotiate with representatives of the rest of the U.K. on the finer details of the split.

Trying to overrule the advice of a civil servant, whose experience in Northern Ireland brought a distinctive perspective to the discussion, she found herself having to balance her own urge to speak against the demands of cross-border realpolitik. Helmed by Orla O’Loghlin, the Traverse’s artistic director, the entertaining piece raised challenging ideas that might have been better resolved in a longer play. (The production will return to the Traverse for the week of the referendum.)

Lest the focus on Scottish politics seem alienating to the crowds of international tourists who flock to the Edinburgh festivals each year, Clerke would advise audiences to think of “Braveheart” — and especially its famous speech (“Tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom”). That’s what made her feel Scottish, she recounts in her show. “In fact,” she adds, “it makes everyone feel Scottish.”

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