EDINBURGH, Scotland - The world's largest arts festival attracts audiences and performers from around the globe each August, but the political future of the host nation is taking center stage this year.
Dozens of performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe focus on a Sept. 18 referendum that will determine whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom or becomes independent for the first time in 307 years.
An intense public battle to persuade voters means that writers, comedians and actors in Scotland's capital have not had to search far for satirical inspiration.
The Fringe's reputation for political comedy and satire have meant that the prominent figures from both sides of the campaign have come under fire, often in the same show.
"How to Achieve Redemption as a Scot Through the Medium of Braveheart” by Rachael Clerke pokes fun at the leaders of the independence movement, and presents purposefully unconvincing reenactments from Mel Gibson’s pro-Scotland blockbuster.
What most of the world thinks is Scottish history is simply not accurate, Clerke states again and again during her performance.
With her face painted blue and white, the colors of the Scottish flag, she recites Gibson's rousing speech from “Braveheart,” where he plays William Wallace, the legendary Scottish warrior who fought the English 700 years ago. At the end of her wry performance, Clerke leads her audience onto the streets of Edinburgh.
“Fight and you may die. Run and you will live at least a while,” she cries from atop a bicycle (instead of a horse like in the movie). “And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!"
'A country should get the government it votes for'
In contrast, “The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant" by Alan Bisset is unabashedly pro-independence.
It features fairies, banshees and other characters from Scottish folklore that encourage the audience to vote Yes, as in “yes” for independence.
Bisset’s play, performed in one of the festival’s largest venues, revolves around characters who initially want to remain part of Great Britain, but eventually realize that they have been manipulated and deceived.
“I have a specific agenda,” Bisset admits. “I wanted to use this opportunity to try and persuade people to vote Yes.”
Bisset echoes a common complaint in Scotland -- while the population overwhelmingly votes left-of-center, it often ends up with a right-of-center government in London, such as the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition led by Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Scotland is a country and a country should get a government it votes for,” he said. “At the moment Scotland gets the government that England votes for, and that is not the basis of democracy.”
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who is leading the charge for independence, says Scotland needs to take charge of its own destiny after hundreds of years living under the British government.
With a multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry, Salmond argues Scotland would be wealthy if it went it alone. Cameron says that Scotland benefits from Britain’s political and economic power, and would languish if it broke away.
Among the non-theater types, those in favor of independence tend to be very vocal about their heartfelt views, Edinburgh resident Irene Auchinleck said. Those who support the No campaign, known as "Better Together," meanwhile, are often nervous about taking a stance publicly, she said.
“They are very reluctant to say that they are No voters because they are afraid of intimidation at every level," Auchinleck said. "People are beginning to dislike one another if they are on opposite sides ... It is breaking up families, friendships.”
What happened to J.K. Rowling illustrates how high emotions run on the subject: The "Harry Potter” author was subjected to hate mail and online abuse after donating $1.7 million to the No cause.
Despite the swirling passions, some people have yet to decide how they will vote, if at all.
“Spoiling,” which is set in post-referendum Scotland, tries to address those who are still mulling their decision. The play, staged at the legendary Traverse Theatre, is set in 2015 and features a female politician pushed to make unpleasant compromises in a newly independent Scotland.
She discovers that the newly formed government is colluding behind her back, and her dreams of an independent nation are shattered as she realizes how much Scotland remains in Britain’s thrall.
"We were mandated a spine so they can’t call every five minutes to remind us where we left the f***ing remote control," cries the character in despair.
Polls suggest that the No voters will likely prevail in September, but no matter what the outcome, this political drama will not have a happy ending for many.