Reviews: Pornography and other Edinburgh Festival reviews

Pornography, Traverse (FOUR STARS); Fall, Traverse (THREE STARS);  Bite the Dust, Universal Arts Theatre (FOUR STARS); The Tailor of Inverness, Assembly Rooms (FOUR STARS): 

Few plays come to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe with the reputation of Simon Stephens’s Pornography. First staged in Germany last year, it is said to have been too controversial to premiere in London.

   However, as so often when a play is hyped for its “controversial” subject matter, this UK premiere (a co-production between the Traverse and Birmingham Rep) shows Stephens’s drama to be a deeply thoughtful, even moral, piece of theatre. Set against the backdrop of the announcement that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympic Games and, then, the bomb attacks in the city on July 7, 2005, the piece is an often poetic contemplation of contemporary London, and Britain more widely, through characters who transgress various social norms.

   The fascist schoolboy who stalks his teacher (Billy Seymour on scintillating form) and the twentysomething sister and brother engaged in an incestuous relationship (shades of Ian McEwan’s first novel The Cement Garden) are simultaneously senseless and comprehensible. The same is true of the observant, young 7/7 bomber making his way to London by train. The sheer depth of the characters (there are no demons here) gives meaning to the play.

   Not all of Stephens’s characterisations are so effective, and affecting, however. An outspoken retired female academic with a penchant for swearing seems like a patronising comic caricature.

   Such blemishes aside, however, Pornography deserves to go down as a hit of this year’s Festival. A consciously fragmented image of our society, beautifully fashioned by director Sean Holmes, it is, in our troubled and confused times, as close to a state-of-the-nation play as Britain is likely to get.

   If Stephens’s play delivers on expectations, Fall, the latest piece by acclaimed playwright Zinnie Harris, sadly, does not. Set in a new nation emerging from a devastating civil war, the drama’s theme (a woman discovers that she unwittingly married a former general who committed appalling crimes) promised to return us to the sort of territory explored in Ariel Dorfman’s great play Death And The Maiden.

   The great disappointment of the piece, however, is that it lacks the coherence and authority of Dorfman’s drama. Fall begins promisingly enough, with Kate (widow of the former general) conducting a bizarre interview with one of her husband’s fellow war criminals, who is languishing on death row. Other characters (such as an over-hyped Prime Minister and his spin doctored wife) are similarly encouraging.

   No sooner has Harris woven these figures together, however, than she begins to unravel them, and her play, in the most alarming way. The war criminal (played by Cliff Burnett) is the first to degenerate, into a sarcastically evil caricature, followed swiftly by Brian Ferguson’s physically and sexually violent prison guard.

   The worst, however, is kept until last. In a conclusion of eyeball-piercing naivety, Prime Minister Pierre (an undeservedly strong performance from Darrell D’Silva) is transformed into a t-shirt wearing, liberal hero. So risible is the denouement that it is hard to imagine how director Dominic Hill might have saved the play from itself.

   Bite The Dust, by leading Polish playwright Tadeusz Rózewicz, is considerably more rewarding. Nauseated by the mythologising of the partisans of the Polish National Army (of which he was a member) and the sanitisation of the Second World War, Rózewicz wrote a bleakly satirical play in which four partisans, isolated in the forest, brutalised and scatological, while away the hours until the inevitable act of violent “justice” occurs.     

   Co-directors Janusz Opryski and Witold Mazurkiewicz have created a vision of the play – visually dark, with sharp shafts of light – which lies somewhere between Goya’s famous series of pictures The Disasters Of War and the existential crises represented in the plays of Samuel Beckett. The movements of the soldiers, who literally carry the forest on their backs, are brilliantly choreographed. The music (played on a simple hurdy-gurdy) is powerfully atmospheric.

   Despite its many accomplishments, the production does lose something in being played in English. I had the good fortune to see it performed in Polish, in Warsaw, last month. In this English version, lines are almost inaudible on occasion, and the piece loses its rhythm and momentum. One can’t help but wish that this fascinating play was being performed in Polish with English surtitles.

   There is some Polish spoken, and sung, in Dogstar theatre company’s The Tailor Of Inverness, written and performed by Scots-Polish actor Matthew Zajac. It is a brave biographical piece, in which Zajac plays the parts of both his father Mateusz (the eponymous tailor, who died in 1992) and himself.

   The truth of Zajac’s father’s life before and during the Second World War only came to light after the man’s death. The emotional consequences were immense for those involved, but the story speaks to many other family histories.

    Like his cloth, Mateusz’s stories are given to us as fragments, at first. Then they come together, covering over the things which the tailor prefers to, or feels he must, hide.

   Many of the theatrical innovations, not least the use of clothes hanging on a rail to represent characters (such as two young Jewish boys from Mateusz’s village, presumably murdered by the Nazis), bear the impressive signature of the show’s director, Ben Harrison of Grid Iron theatre company. As the production, which includes splendidly integrated live fiddle playing, comes to its emotionally affecting conclusion, it is clear that it has succeeded in turning a deeply personal family story into a universal work of theatre.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald in August 2008


© Mark Brown

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