Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2004
*** / ****

It strikes me that we 21st-century liberals can experience compassion fatigue at the theatre just as in real life. I have a hunch, too, that the more bald and unadorned an account appears to be (although it may be carefully crafted beneath the surface), the more likely it is to get the desired response; conversely, the more openly impassioned a theatrical representation, the less inclined we are to add our own passions to those of the piece. The more you ask, the less you get.

When The Bulbul Stopped Singing is Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh's account of the Israeli siege of Ramallah, where he lives, in 2002. As adapted for the stage by David Greig, it principally takes the form of a diary, of the weeks of the siege and of the aftermath that left the Palestinian administrative capital ruined. Without having read it, I suspect it is more powerful on the page than on the stage.

Traverse artistic director Philip Howard doesn't really find an effective way to symbolise what's being recounted. Performer Christopher Simon paces around a non-Euclidean room, first drawing a map of Ramallah in an area of red sand on the floor and then writhing on it as the privation grows and he gradually strips from business suit to open shirt and bare feet. Simon gives full weight to the words and emotions. And that, for me at least, is the problem: the more strident the voice onstage, the less it carried me along with it.

Compare the periodic pauses in Russell Barr's solo piece Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters. Barr, in the persona of a Glaswegian drag queen, blends deliciously bitchy accounts of "Bernice"'s family background with gritty portraits of life in the drag-and-drug community. Every so often, though, he will simply stop for several seconds. Sometimes, it suggests that there is something lurking which is darkly opposite to the anecdote just past; sometimes, that it's simply unbearable to say everything. "Dead air" may be fatal to radio, but here it falls into the category of "crude but effective", especially as the account gathers momentum towards a horrifically bloody conclusion. Only one victim, not a city or a people, but the more impactful for it. The less you ask, the more you get.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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