Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2008
**** / **** / 0

Identity, history and the status of others loom large in a knot of plays in the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe. The theatrical side of the International Festival, this year themed “Artists Without Borders”, began last weekend with TR Warszawa’s Dybbuk, a blend of two pieces about possession and obligation to the past. In Szymon Anski’s 1920 play, young Lea is possessed on her wedding day by the spirit of the young man to whom she had previously been betrothed; in Hanna Krall’s contemporary story, Polish-American Adam is sporadically inhabited by a half-brother he never knew, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis. In Krzysztof Warlikowski’s adaptation, Anski’s story simply segues into Krall’s rather than being tricksily interwoven with it.

Warlikowski’s production has a spare elegance. The stage is for the most part bare (animated projections possibly intended to represent decorations in a rural Polish synagogue are, I think, a misjudgement), and the evening begins with the cast seated in a row, taking turns to tell rabbinical parables. This motif continues through both tales; a sense grows that, not just through such anecdotes but in all sorts of ways, we need to recognise and come to an accommodation with the past in order to live our own lives now. This is as true of nations – Poland, Israel (in the sense both of the state and the people) – as of individuals.

On the Fringe, Matthew Zajac’s solo-plus-violin piece The Tailor Of Inverness tells of his own father, born in a Polish (now Ukrainian) village and who arrived in Scotland after World War 2 following a circuitous route through the Near and Middle East and fighting with the Free Polish forces. However, as time goes on, Zajac senior tells conflicting versions of this history, and after his death Matthew attempts to untangle them. It transpires that Mateusz Zajac may have been at various times conscripted into both the Soviet army and the Wehrmacht, and that he left behind a wife and daughter, Matthew’s half-sister. In Zajac’s simple, beautiful presentation and performance we feel his sense of self first challenged then enriched.

But not all work about this era contains such awareness. Badac Theatre's The Factory is a promenade piece which aims to evoke the systematic, industrially abusive process in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The performers achieve this by abusing the audience: yelling in our faces, deafening us with metal-bashing and general psychological bullying. This is not pretend, and we are not given the option. So I made one. After an impassioned appeal directly to us by a prisoner-figure that "Something must be done!", we were bellowed at once more to "fucking MOVE!" into another chamber. As an experiment to see how audience-responsive the work was, I quietly said, "No." After a dozen or so repetitions of this exchange (which did not disrupt the piece, as all others had by then moved on), the performer gave up on me, and I on the play. This intended indictment of a complacently abusive system which took no account of others as autonomous beings was in fact exhibiting the same thoughtlessness and contempt itself.

On this basis I would have given the show perhaps a generous two stars, but matters did not end there. Badac's ethos is to reach its dramatic goals through violence, and on each of the two evenings following, as I wound down at the end of the day, I was silently but menacingly subjected to low-level stalking by the company's co-founder Steve Lambert. Clearly, this was not with a view to debate; it was about giving me the willies. Between the piece itself and the subsequent harassment, never in my theatregoing life have I seen such a complete misunderstanding of the status of the audience, nor theatrical values so utterly and perniciously inverted. And if Lambert reads this, I may well have some more nasty encounters. Well, I still won't fucking move.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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