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

Twice within the past week I have experienced one of the greatest joys of theatre: finding myself quite in love with a production, affected to the heart, without having noticed how or when it so won me over. It is more heartening still that one of these romances should have taken place in the Edinburgh International Festival, the other on its Fringe.

On the face of it, Jidariyya may be little more than a staged recital of the 1999 poem written when Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish found himself near death. In the event, he recovered and in fact died only a few days before the Palestinian National Theatre’s production visited Edinburgh. The poem is a heart-song between life and land, with a sense of geographical identity now lost to too many of us metropolitans. Director Amir Nizar Zuabi stages the piece around a hospital bed on which Makram J Khoury’s narrator lies. He exchanges lines with an idealised version of himself, with a lover and various other figures. At one point Zuabi’s inventiveness with simple resources makes an entire agri-landscape sweep on in the train of a goddess’s robe. To emerge from the theatre and gaze up at Castle Rock makes one realise how thin our urban veneer is.

Gregorz Jarzyna’s TR Warszawa production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a remarkable, powerful piece of work. In an abstract, clinical setting, Magdalena Cielecka plays the protagonist who is on the verge of suicide (as was Kane when she wrote the piece, taking her life before it could be staged), arguing her utter despair with a collage of lovers, doctors and others, against a rumbling, brooding background of infrasound. (Kane’s text has no characters assigned to the lines.) It is striking, but it is not Kane’s play. My companion put it succinctly: they have taken a play about trying to find how to live, and made a production about finding how to die.

At the top end of the Fringe, the Traverse often pulls a rabbit or two out of its hat midway through the festival season. This year, Vox Motus’s Slick is a delicious black comedy about a nine-year-old boy, his exploitative parents, thuggish landlord and his cracked centenarian mother, and the discovery of crude oil coming out of a toilet in a Glaswegian apartment building. It is staged with squat tabletop puppets with their human operators’ heads and hands, so that what we see is a group of grotesque, malevolent Weegie munchkins.

Last year, Belgian company Ontroerend Goed brought an amazingly intimate one-person-at-a-time piece The Smile Off Your Face. This year, in a way, is no less intimate. In Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Really Are So Shut Up And Listen, thirteen teenagers pile on to the stage to enact and re-enact the same friendships, hostilities, loves, hates, games, intoxications etc in a succession of different contexts. The first scene is performed to The Velvet Underground’s 1970 live version of I’m Waiting For The Man. The second scene is exactly identical, but already we find ourselves watching differently. By the third scene, a balletic self-parody to the Flower Duet from Lakmé, we begin to grasp it: these people, without necessarily even knowing it, are finding out how to live, and we too are finding out how to watch and evaluate them – not as wastrels, vandals, idiots or whatever, but as human beings settling into their minds and bodies and showing them off like flash new clothes. As one says, “Everything has been done before. But not by me. Not now.” But by all of us. Crazy beautiful.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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