Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2008
**** / **** / *** / *** / ** / *** / ***

The title of Simon Stephens’ play Pornography, the jewel in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe selection at the Traverse Theatre, can be interpreted in several ways. It can refer to the material itself, which crops up as a motif uniting some but not all of these interwoven stories of lives in London on and just before 7 July 2005; it could be a comment on a specific storyline dealing with brother/sister incest; it might even allude to the voracious, prurient way in which we consume “human interest” stories like these. Stephens is, as ever, dispassionate yet sympathetic in his writing: one of the play’s threads is an imagined account by one of the 7/7 bombers of his journey on that day, and it shows keen observation without ever venturing into ideology or judgement (either by the character or of him). Sean Holmes’ hi-tech rough-theatre staging is finely judged, not least in those elements of Stephens’ pick’n’mix script which he chooses not to include in his staging.

Pornography aside, I am afraid that once again the first tranche of Traverse shows do not quite meet one’s expectations of this prestigious venue which in some ways operates as a bridge between the Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival. I am gradually being won round to young American company the TEAM, whose Architecting is a tangled, ambivalent lament for the old American South. The company are bright, energetic and combine seriousness with exuberant enjoyment, but they might benefit from more variety in their dramatic structures and greater selectivity in the ingredients they finally include. The other American-ish offering (although bearing the badge of Glasgow’s Arches Theatre Company), the apocalyptic naval two-hander Finished With Engines, comes over as an uncertain imitation of the work of The Riot Group, the company of which actors Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman are co-founders.

A brace of transfers from London – The Royal Court’s Free Outgoing And Nocturne from the Almeida, both reviewed here last month – nestle alongside a pair of Irish offerings. With The New Electric Ballroom (which he directs himself for Druid), Enda Walsh once more follows the template of earlier plays seen at the Traverse such as Bedbound and The Walworth Farce: a small group of characters in a confined environment, obsessively telling and re-telling a narrative which gives them meaning (in this case a tale of squalid shenanigans in a 1960s dance-hall) but which is broken and re-shaped in the course of the play. Walsh has now set out an impressive stall as a successor of sorts to Samuel Beckett, though I am as yet unconvinced that we need one. Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus is a three-pronged magical realist story of life, death and disembodied souls flying around contemporary Dublin, in a production from that city’s Abbey Theatre; committed performances by Eileen Walsh and Karl Shiels, alas, failed to curb my annoyance at the jangling doggerel verse in which O’Rowe has written it.

Philip Ralph’s Deep Cut (produced by the Sherman of Cardiff) is an efficient polemic, a near-verbatim play compiled from various testimonies regarding the four young soldiers who died by gunshot at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002. Mick Gordon’s sensitive production does not quite manage to hide the palpable shift in tone halfway through from individual human-interest story to big-issue crusade. The RSC/Traverse co- production of Zinnie Harris’s Fall completes that writer’s Howard Barker-like trilogy of war plays; the subject under examination here is how individuals and society move on afterwards, and whether executing war criminals is a necessity of justice or another act of hostility which sustains the climate of strife. It is a thoughtful piece, but a long and dry one; seeing the trilogy staged together would be interesting but phenomenally daunting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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