Reviews: Edinburgh Fringe, August 4, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Edinburgh Fringe Reviews

by Mark Brown



Traverse Theatre

Until August 25


Long Live The Little Knife

Traverse Theatre

Until August 25



Until August 25


The place is a pub in a predominantly working-class, Catholic community in Belfast. The year is 2009, a little over a decade since the Good Friday Agreement. A Catholic man, Jimmy, watches a football match (Northern Ireland versus Poland) with a Polish barman, Robert.

Jimmy’s mind isn’t on the match. He’s waiting for Ian, a man he has never met, but who has played a massive role in his life. In 1974, when Jimmy was 16 years old, recent UVF recruit Ian, also 16, threw a bomb into this pub killing all six men inside, including Jimmy’s father.

This story, which is, as Jimmy says, “one story among thousands”, is the basis for Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s intelligent and humane take on “truth and reconciliation” in Northern Ireland, the UK premiere of which is presented in the Traverse studio by Ireland’s national drama company the Abbey Theatre. The beauty of this play, which is given a tight and compelling production by director Jimmy Fay, is that it avoids the pitfalls of earnest polemicising (which belongs in the political treatise or the newspaper column, not on the stage) and, instead, puts a careful theatrical craft at the service of its laudable political intent.

Jimmy (a palpably, and brilliantly, torn Patrick O’Kane) struggles to suppress his anger and pain long enough to ask the questions which have absorbed his mind over 35 years. Ian (Declan Conlon, impressive in his stoical vulnerability) tries, diffidently and reluctantly, to reconcile his self-justification with his guilt. Their conversation carries Conor McPherson’s sense of the significance of talk, and Harold Pinter’s emphasis on the meanings of silence. It gives powerful support to the idea (which is deceptively simple, and almost impossibly complex) that “truth and reconciliation” is at least as much about perpetrators and victims reconciling the conflicts within themselves as it is about making peace with others.

If the Irish play is splendidly well-made, the same cannot be said of Glasgow-based dramatist David Leddy’s latest offering Long Live The Little Knife, also playing in the Traverse studio. Leddy is among the most frustrating of theatre makers. He often reminds one of the little girl from the nursery rhyme, of whom it was written: “When she was good, she was very, very good… but when she was bad she was horrid.” This piece, sadly, falls into the horrid category.

Self-referential and (for its sins) self-consciously postmodern, the work purports to emanate from a conversation Leddy had with two strangers in an Edinburgh bar. Actors Wendy Seager and Neil McCormack narrate the intentionally disjointed narrative in the characters of deluded, small time criminals and would-be world class forgers Liz and Jim. Their interactions with the audience (a kind of bargain basement metatheatricality) combine with storytelling in such a way as to make the show seem like an adult Jackanory created by an under-exerted Quentin Tarantino.

The narrators tell, and sometimes enact, an overloaded tale of gangsterism, a horribly induced miscarriage, people trafficking, prostitution, paedophilia, black market art dealers and appalling acts of sexual violence. Meanwhile, the on-stage stage manager throws red rubber work gloves into the performance space to symbolise blood and sets metronomes ticking (presumably to evoke a sense of momentum); both of which are, like so much else in this show, ineffective, postmodern devices.

There are occasional moments of smart writing, but they are outnumbered by the puerile and the stupidly vulgar (for instance, an American university is given a name which is, not only unpublishable in a family newspaper, but would also be unworthy of an easily amused 13-year-old). This is an ungainly melange, rather than a play. However, if you are bored, you can always try to relieve the tedium by spotting the titles of Leddy’s previous dramas (I noticed Sub Rosa and Sussurus) which the writer has, somewhat pointlessly, slipped into the script.

From the redundant to the undeniably urgent in the shape of English theatre company Badac’s latest piece Anna. Playing at the Summerhall venue – which has, in just two years, established itself as a home for serious, high quality art works on the Fringe – and written and directed by Steve Lambert, it continues the group’s journey in an aesthetic which combines Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” with a mission to explore the violence of the human experience.

Typically, in plays such as The Cage (about domestic violence) or The Factory (set in a Nazi death camp), Badac plunge us into a moment of extreme terror. This show – although, in telling the story of  Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006, more narrative driven – is in an affectingly similar vein.

Audience members stand in a narrow basement corridor throughout the production’s traumatic hour. The performers (Scottish actress Marnie Baxter, heart-burstingly powerful in the title role, and a superb, four-strong supporting cast) are never far from you as they render, with full verbal, physical and emotional force, key events in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly despotic governance and Politkovskaya’s investigations (complete with vicious and vile threats against her and her family).

Lambert’s self-defined “extreme political art” will not be to everyone’s taste, and, at times, the frightening force of the performances does threaten to subsume the subject. Ultimately, however, as the piece comes to its inevitable, shuddering conclusion, one cannot deny the skill and commitment of Badac or the immense significance of the sacrifice made by Anna Politkovskaya.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 4, 2013

© Mark Brown


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