Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2006
*** / ****

I have long been exercised by the question of whether some international productions are simply patronised by their British audiences as a form of exotica. Paul Grootboom sets out precisely to avoid such a possibility. Township Stories (which he directs and co-wrote with Presley Chweneyagae) is devoid of twangling guitars, rope-jumping or any of the cliches of happy black South Africa. Instead we see serial murder, casual police brutality and a life in which alcoholism, sex and violence are the mainstays. It is a shocking corrective to the sanitised version of the RSA more often peddled to us. Grootboom heightens the disjunction by staging most of the violence to the soundtrack of quiet, beautiful music: a father/son rape central to the plot is backed by Paul Simon's "Slip Slidin' Away". The device is overused and grows predictable, nor is the script terribly subtle, but it is an impeccably performed slap in the face of the kind we need to rouse us from our complacency.

Michael Redhill's Goodness is a similarly challenging piece, but in a quite different dramatic register, right from the opening speech in which Redhill as a character within his own play at once explains that what follows is based on a true story and positions it unambiguously as a story. As "Redhill" hears more and more of a tale of genocide in an unspecified location, and the subsequent attempt to try the principal provocateur (now apparently suffering from Alzheimer's disease), writer and characters engage increasingly in dialogues and interrogations that break the frame of the story. The questions are always of the same kind: "What would you have done?", "How would you feel?" Lines are blurred further by director Ross Manson placing his actors among the audience: as they emerge and melt back, they seem to bring these moral dilemmas with them to wash around us all as we sit together. Manson's production for the Canadian Volcano company is small-scale and unfussy, but it is the most rigorous and complex moral examination I have seen this festival season.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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