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

Looking in advance at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme, it seemed to contain interesting choices of what was likely to be uninteresting work. Director Jonathan Mills and his team were laudably eschewing his predecessor’s tendency simply to re-invite the usual auteur suspects from the international-festival circuit, but there appeared few prospects of “water-cooler talk” for theatregoers.

In the event, much of the programme has been compelling. We have seen two disparate productions from TR Warszawa, the beautiful Jidariyya from Palestine, and a video installation by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Looking At Tazieh, which focused on the audience at a performance of the Shia equivalent of a Passion play and proved fascinating once one tuned in to its approach. In the past week, however, that interest has begun to fall away.

Haris Pašović’s adaptation of Nigel Williams’ 1978 Class Enemy for his Sarajevo-based East West Theatre Company was a good idea in theory. Williams’ tale of a bunch of problem pupils who barricade themselves into a classroom and teach each other a nihilistic alternative curriculum has evident resonance with a generation of youngsters growing up after the Bosnian wars. Switching the genders of some characters from Williams’ all-male originals showed adolescent sexuality as one of the few outlets available to these youths, and even the inclusion of rap sequences seemed enlightening rather than, as is more usual, ham-fistedly tokenistic. But converting characters’ rants about “the blacks” to “the Serbs” (“they come over here, pinch our jobs”… in Sarajevo?) seemed strained, adding a climactic shoot-out (and guess what? It’s the dreamer that gets killed) hackneyed, and building a barricade of desks and chairs across the “fourth wall” at the front of the stage just silly.

Josse de Pauw’s Ruhe alternated the singing of Schubert part-songs by the Collegium Vocale Gent with verbatim banality-of-evil testimonies from actors playing two Dutch folk – a nurse and a soldier – who had voluntarily worked for the Nazi regime. The contrast between the unknowable sublime of the music and the ignorance of the collaborators was well brought out, emphasised by de Pauw’s staging of having the performers sit among the audience, who were arranged in a vortex of a couple of hundred chairs of divers styles. None of this is extraordinary or other, was the message. Carly Wijs and Dirk Roofthooft delivered their speeches in underplayed English, although the latter’s ad-libs about his immediate surroundings crashed the temporal gears somewhat.

But the most powerful experience of the theatre slate so far has been the spectacular failure of its flagship production 365, also the first time I have ever been less than enthralled by a National Theatre of Scotland project. David Harrower’s script looks at children emerging from institutional care via the transitional step of living (under loose supervision) in a flat of their own at age 16. Several cases are interwoven: parental cruelty, inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse, obsessive compulsion, radical dissociation and arson are all present and muddily correct, for this is a mess. Vicky Featherstone’s production looks remarkable, but also ridiculous. It may be a deliberate visual motif to have sets so dwarfed on the vast Playhouse stage (things will surely look more in proportion in the Lyric Hammersmith next month), but if so, it’s not one that works. The assembly-line apartments are efficient enough, but when a forest dreamscape emerges it amounts to an admission that the piece does not really know where it is or where it’s going. When eleven teenagers sit in a row answering questions about their lives, the inescapable Edinburgh 2008 comparison is with the exuberant Belgian teens in Once And For All… at the Traverse, and once again the International Festival comes a distinct, sad second.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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