Black Watch / Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 / Particularly In The Heartland / Persae
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2006

It's very easy to become hermetically sealed up here for the duration of the festival season, and not notice quite major events in the rest of the world. During past Edinburghs, I have largely missed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the attempted Soviet coup of 1991. This year, I might not have spotted the arrest of alleged would-be bombers and the chaos at Britain's airports had I not had to take a brief trip away from Festival-land. (First five-star event of the season: my niece's wedding, although south Wales is just outside the catchment area for Fringe venues.)

That's not to say, though, that such events have no impact on Edinburgh; it just takes them a while to filter through. Last year, for instance, the tension generated in London by the 7 July bombs and the 21 July attempts seemed to lead to a reaction on the Fringe whereby folk took the opportunity to be relatively relaxed, and consequently the usual sense of Edinburgh electricity was missing.

There has also been a noticeable upswing since September 11, 2001 in pieces which comment on broader world matters, which in practice usually means one flavour or another of the various unsettling activities in the Middle East. This year is no exception. However, what is slightly disappointing is the extent to which the agenda for such comment is defined in relation to the United States. In some ways that is unsurprising, with the U.S. as the only global superpower and the leader (to say the least) in forcible foreign ventures. But one might expect the latitude offered by the Fringe to throw up a number of less conventional perspectives.

Gregory Burke's Black Watch, the sensation of the Fringe so far, is on one level an examination of a particular Scottish community in a current military context, and a lament for the end of the Black Watch as we know it in the forthcoming regimental amalgamations. However, the play also makes the point that the Watch's presence in Iraq has been in a sense dictated by American requirements, not just in having started the invasion but in their desire now to retrench to a level that reduces the number of voter-unfriendly body bags heading back across the Atlantic. Squaddies and officers alike in Burke's play have little time for what is portrayed as an American adventure carried out by proxy via a supine British government.

Elsewhere at the Traverse, points of view are scarcely more varied. Henry Adam's Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 concerns a number of Israeli soldiers, a millenarian Texan preacher and an American rabbi's wife, filtering the Israeli/Palestinian agenda through their differing eyes. The crux of Adam's play is the Christian fundamentalist view that, in order to fulfil the circumstances for Jesus' second coming, the Temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt, which would entail the demolition of the al-Aqsa mosque currently on the site and thus precipitate an almost literal Armageddon with Palestinians and other Muslims. Once again, though, this is portrayed as an attitude with its roots in America, such that even the rabbi's wife appears to share it with the preacher. The apocalyptic muddle of the script does not help in deciphering the geopolitical dimension.

Things are unambiguous in Traverse 2, geographically at least, with Particularly In The Heartland. Set in Kansas, the piece centres on three children left orphaned either by the Rapture in which deserving Christians are taken bodily into heaven in the last days, or by the loss of their parents in a midwestern hurricane. They attempt to continue their devout lives with the aid of other characters including an East Coast sophisticate named Dorothy whose ruby slippers have taken her to Kansas, and the resurrected Bobby Kennedy. No, I don't understand it either.

The TEAM (it stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment: they know it's pretentious and are apologetic though unrepentant), a New York-based post-student company, came to Fringe attention last year with Give Up! Start Over! (In The Darkest Of Times I Look To Richard Nixon For Hope), as a result of which the Traverse commissioned this piece from them. I didn't join in the accolades last year, and I still don't. I can see that they are an energetic, intelligent, inventive and playful ensemble, all qualities that go to making top-notch theatre.  Whether by accident or design, though, there is far too little dramatic focus for my taste. I get what they are saying, but the way they are saying it doesn't sustain my interest. I have no problems with even a broad-brush impressionistic approach to theatre, but the pieces I have seen from the TEAM so far are more like Jackson Pollocks.

In some ways the most impressive of the big-political-picture plays I have seen so far is Van Badham's Persae, which takes Aeschylus' 2400-year-old piece of Athenian propaganda and turns it on its head by transforming Atossa, widow of one Persian invader-king and mother of another, into Barbara Bush, plagued with portentous visions about the catastrophe in wait for her son's military exploits. Badham makes sharp use of both the similarities and the discords between the formal rhetoric of Greek tragedy and contemporary political discourse with its differing public and private idioms. But, in a play with such an explicitly Washingtonian centre, she also succeeds in broadening the picture by switching the focus in the final third of the hour-long piece to her native Australia, with a threnody for victims of a terrorist attack there and the clear sense that this, too, is a result of America's business. For once a view of events elsewhere does not either acquiesce in or simply decry the U.S. agenda, but mordantly interrogates it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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