Reviews: Edinburgh Fringe, August 11, 2013

Edinburgh Fringe Reviews

by Mark Brown

 

Nirbhaya

Assembly Hall

Until August 25

 

Somnambules & The 7 Deadly Sins

Summerhall

Until August 25

 

The Events

Traverse

Until August 25

 

When, on December 16 of last year, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old medical student, was gang-raped, with unspeakable brutality, on a bus in New Delhi, the attack (from which the young woman died on December 29) sent shock waves throughout India and across the globe. Even in a world in which one might almost be forgiven for becoming inured to what Nick Cave has called “routine atrocity”, this crime distinguished itself in its horrifying savagery. Jyoti became known as Nirbhaya (“Fearless One” in Hindi), on account of her brave resistance to her attackers.

Now, in an extraordinary collaboration between a group of Indian women and acclaimed South African dramatist Yael Farber (creator of last year’s superb Edinburgh Fringe hit Mies Julie), the pain and outrage caused by the Delhi attack has grown into a resonating work of theatre. Five Indian women (three of whom are professional actors, two of whom are not), assisted by one male actor, weave into the agonised narrative of Nirbhaya stories based upon their own  experiences of sexist violence: from the casual, appalling groping of the daily bus journey in Delhi; to sexual abuse as children; a disfiguring, misogynist burning; and gang-rape on a street in Chicago.

That the play carries a heavy moral authority is undeniable. However, the genius (and I use that word advisedly) of this piece is that Farber and her cast have, rather than create another work of documentary drama, turned instead to the unique capacities of live theatre.

From the representation of the attack on Jyoti to the re-enactment of her funeral, and the five narratives in between, the work ties together a visceral anguish with a bleak, beautiful poetry; be it in language, movement, visual imagery, or sound and music. Great theatre requires the intercession of the human imagination, and this piece combines the presentation of unbearable facts with ingenious aesthetics in a manner so brilliant that it is, surely, one of the most powerful and urgent pieces of human rights theatre ever made.

There is, surprisingly, little such power in Somnambules & The 7 Deadly Sins at Summerhall. A collaboration between Brighton-based physical theatre artist Yael Karavan and Tanya Khabarova of acclaimed Russian company Derevo, it is a meditation upon the seminal forces at play in human experience and how they manifest themselves in the modern world.

As Edinburgh Fringe audiences have experienced on numerous occasions with Khabarova’s work, visual theatre is capable of great beauty and metaphorical resonance. In its more abstract moments Somnambules does create some memorable images, such as Karavan, in a white dress, struggling hopelessly against the trailing fetters placed upon her by Khabarova, who is attired as a malevolent, demonic nun (an image of Death which, alongside a skull and a prominently-placed chess board, seems to have been ripped shamelessly from Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal).

The show’s ethereal use of music, sound and lighting will be recognisable to fans of Derevo. However, such moments of stage poetry are too few, and are overwhelmed by a well-intentioned, but heavy-handed, political commentary which (given Khabarova’s track record) comes as a disappointment.

When, early in the piece, Karavan mimes to a speech which might be defined as Buddhist liberal humanism, it is a sign of increasingly obvious things to come. From militarism to environmental destruction,  the bête noires of contemporary liberalism are trotted out with a numbing banality. By the dreary end of the performance, the only real surprise is that these accomplished artists could have created such a crude and misconceived piece of soapbox theatre.

There is (yet) another contemplation of human crisis in The Events, one of the prolific David Greig’s latest plays, co-produced by the Actors Touring Company and, it seems, just about everyone in Europe. In a non-descript church hall, we find Claire (Neve McIntosh), lesbian minister for a liberal Christian denomination, attempting to understand the motivations of the unnamed Boy (one of the characters played by Rudi Dharmalingam) who massacred members of Claire’s multiethnic choir.

There is a compelling truth in Claire’s increasing obsessiveness, and its impact on every aspect of her life. Cross casting Dharmalingam, an Asian man, as both Claire’s female partner and the white supremacist mass murderer (who resembles a cross between the Norwegian fascist killer Anders Behring Breivik and his British counterpart David Copeland) is a smart, if not quite original, move; the words of The Boy, in particular, take on a strange, inscrutable aspect which cleverly mirrors Claire’s bewilderment.

McIntosh and Dharmalingam give captivating performances, but Greig has hamstrung his own play with a theatrical device which, time after time, deliberately, but detrimentally, upsets the drama’s momentum. The actors play in front of and through a real choir (The Hadley Court Singers from Haddington, East Lothian), who represent the entirely white survivors of the atrocity. The choir makes thematic sense, of course; not least when we see them being subjected to Claire’s efforts at collective healing (through a shaman ritual, for example).

However, with the best will in the world, whilst the Singers have some lovely voices, actors they are not. The requirement that they deliver dialogue in a number of set pieces is painfully untheatrical. Ultimately, in stark contrast to Pornography (Simon Stephens’s atmospheric play about the 7/7 bombings in London, which premiered at the Traverse five years ago), Greig’s offering simply deflates itself too often to carry any real dramatic charge.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 11, 2013

© Mark Brown

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