By Alistair Smout
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - The Edinburgh Fringe Festival may attract performers from all over the world, but in 2014, the future of the nation where it is held is on every performer's lips.
The largest arts festival in the world has a distinctively political edge to it this year, as thousands of comedians, actors and singers descend upon Scotland's capital in the year of its independence referendum.
Scotland votes on Sept. 18 on whether to end 307 years of union with England and leave the United Kingdom. Polls suggest that the campaign to reject independence has a substantial lead, although as many as a quarter of the electorate are undecided.
The Fringe festival'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.
"Scotland's in two minds to reverse itself into the cul-de-sac of revolution," comedian Andrew Maxwell says, before apologizing in advance about the wide-ranging criticism that politicians will come in for.
"If at any point you feel offended, just wait five minutes and someone else will be crying."
While no one is safe from satirical attack at Edinburgh, Scotland's artistic community has a vocal pro-independence presence, exhibited by groups such as "National Collective".
Describing themselves as "artists and creatives for Scottish independence", they have organized their own festival, "Yestival", which toured the country in July. Several acts from that are putting shows on in Edinburgh.
Stand-up Hardeep Singh-Kohli is a prominent supporter of independence who took part in "Yestival", and while his show focuses on love, sex and relationships, it is tinged with politics.
During his show "Hardeep Is Your Love", he rules out dating any supporter of British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party, which is unpopular among Scots, and jokes that a conversation with an audience member in Punjabi is about the sustainability of a shared currency.
Allusions to the independence referendum crop up in other unexpected places, including Lucy Porter's entertaining play "The Fair Intellectual Club", set in Edinburgh in 1717 about a group of young women who form a secret society, dedicated to study and discussion.
The play includes a disagreement over the Darien venture, a failed colonial expedition which bankrupted Scotland and precipitated the union with England. The debate over whether England should be credited for helping Scotland or blamed for the expedition's failure has clear parallels with today.
Other references to the debate are less oblique. On the same stage of the Assembly Rooms, a Georgian building dating back to 1776, "Aye Right, How No" offers a "Comedy Countdown to the referendum".
"This is a show about the biggest question facing Scotland," said Vlad MacTavish, one of the comperes. "Although it's not so big that we can't make it utterly trivial."
The show pokes fun at pro-independence campaigner and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond along with rival Scottish politicians who oppose independence, as well as celebrity backers of the campaigns.
Glasgow-based Eleanor Morton made an appearance to sing a comical song in support of independence, while author J.K. Rowling came under fire from co-host Keir McAllister after giving a million pounds to the "Better Together" campaign to reject independence.
"Here's what mystified me about that. This is a woman who has made millions of pounds creating an imaginary universe filled with wizards and dragons," McAllister said. "And she can't imagine a Scotland that can ... run itself."
MacTavish and McAllister are locally-based performers, who put on a show about the referendum as early as 2012, before it was on other comedians' radars.
The festival attracts acts from all over the world, with a record 3,193 shows in 2014 – an 11-percent increase over 2013 – and nearly 51,000 performances to cement the Fringe's position as the biggest annual arts festival in the world.
Maxwell, whose highly-rated show "Hubble Bubble" is a reference to "the Scottish play", Macbeth, offers a distinctive view on the referendum question, not least because he is Irish.
The show thoughtfully raises the issue of the effect of Scottish independence on Northern Ireland, where issues of unionism and separatism have divided communities for generations.
He also questions Scotland's moral claim to vast offshore oil reserves, a key bone of contention in the independence debate, in a way that few comics with London accents might feel brave enough to do.
"It's not yours because you're nearest to it. This isn't a playground," he says, adding that people on the equator would get "first dibs" on the sun by that logic, and pointing out that Shetland, the island which gives Scotland its claim to most of its oil, is further away from Edinburgh than London is.
Despite his scepticism of the nationalists, he does not throw his backing behind the "Better Together" campaign to reject independence, however.
While Scots only have two options in September, to vote "Yes" or "No" to independence, he believes there should be a third, derived from the verdict sometimes brought by Scottish courts: "not proven".
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Andrew Roche)