Daily Archives: August 8, 2007


Truth In Translation
4 stars ****
Assembly @ Assembly Hall (Venue 35)
Bombers’ Row
3 stars ***
Assembly @ Hill Street (Venue 41)
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

THE IDEA OF FORGIVENESS stalks this year’s Fringe like a ghost; the word is everywhere, but no-one seems sure whether the thing itself really exists. It shimmers most powerfully in Tam Dean Burn and Luke Sutherland’s beautiful NTS Workshop show Venus As A Boy, already seen this summer in Orkney where its story begins, but now thrilling Festival audiences at the Traverse.

Elsewhere, though, the feelings of rage, revenge and tribal fury aroused by violence and nurtured by oppression seem on the brink of triumphing over any idea of forgiveness or redemption; which is why Truth In Translation, brought to the Assembly Hall by the Colonnades Theatre Lab and Market Theatre of South Africa, is perhaps one of the most significant shows in Edinburgh this year.

Set during the 1990’s, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding over South Africa’s unique Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up to examine the crimes of the apartheid era, Truth In Translation was first seen in Rwanda last year, and is a free-flowing play with songs, conceived and directed by Michael Lessac with help from the entire company. It focusses on the remarkable team of translators who accompanied the TRC around the country, translating into and out of South Africa’s dozen languages; and as the Commission’s work unfolds, the translators – themselves drawn from a rainbow of different ethnic groups and backgrounds – struggle to cope with the horrific stories of murder, torture and massacre they hear, and with the rage and grief these stories provoke, both against themselves, and against their traditional enemies.

Truth In Translation is not a show that wastes time making things simple for those who know little about South African history; it plunges straight into the heart of the story, and begins – with a deceptive, episodic casualness – to sketch the characters of the eight translators, plus the television reporter Marcel, the TRC “comforter” Nobuhle, and the racist Afrikaaner barman Rudi, who accompany them on the road.

What’s remarkable about the play, though, is how, around the backbone of its music, it gradually builds a compelling narrative, and a completely convincing set of characters, while avoiding the temptation to tidy up the issues for dramatic presentation. The final impression – which matters much more than the historical detail – is of one hell of a moral and ethical mess, in which language itself becomes a weapon or a smokescreen, every soul is divided between vengeance and forgiveness, and terrifying earthquakes of buried rage and pain can break out at any time; but also of a nation determined to find a way of moving on, and committed to the idea that they must do so together. “If you think I don’t love my country, you don’t know your country,” roars the old Afrikaaner Rudi, in farewell; and the fabulous Thembi Mtshali-Jones, as Nobuhle, leads the cast in a final song of mourning and hope, at the end of a show courageously committed to showing humanity exactly as it is, profoundly flawed and often breathtakingly brutal, but not entirely lost.

There’s much less forgiveness around in Paul Allman’s Bombers’ Row, the latest Fringe show from the award-winning 78th Street Theatre Lab of New York. In a combination of serious political drama and dream-like black comedy, the play imagines a situation in which three terrorist bombers – the Unabomber, the 1993 World Trade bomber Ramsi Yousef, and the Oklahoma bomber, Tim McVeigh – are held in adjacent cages in America’s maximum security prison, and allowed to meet and talk for an hour a day. Wisecracking like a gang of New York street kids, the three tease one another about the various belief systems that led them to this place; while far away, in some unnamed city, rescue workers hunt for the latest victims beneath piles of rubble.

Directed with feeling by Eric Nightengale, Bombers’ Row plays, at the moment, like a work in progress. At the core of this play, there’s a brave and intelligent attempt to look squarely at the “reasons” that drive people to horrific violence against civilian targets; I’m not sure, though, that the narrative – with its shocking, vengeful sting in the tail – has yet found the right shape to support that exploration.

At the Traverse, meanwhile, the great Linda Marlowe – best known for her long theatrical partnership with Steven Berkoff – looks to the Old Testament of the Bible for a cold-eyed, courageously pre-Christian look at the position of women in war, as prostitutes and traitors, widows, warriors and martyrs. In a sense, the stories in Matthew Hurt’s script complement one another less well than they should. The design of the piece – black costume, dark stage, one chair – is so austere that the characters seem to come out of nowhere, without even a common location in some timeless war-zone; and the attempts to update one or two of the narratives only add to that sense of confusion.

In the final piece, though, about Hannah the martyr, Marlowe achieves an absolutely memorable, deep stillness, in a heart-stopping monologue about the horrific torture inflicted as she and her seven sons face death for their faith. It’s a stillness that speaks of faith as a great calm, conquering and subsuming all the evil that humankind can do. And on a Fringe full of anger against religious faith as a cause of unnecessary violence, it’s an image worth pondering; much more sombre than the shimmering golden light of Venus As A Boy, but almost as persuasive.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27, 27, 26 August
pp. 232, 177, 175




JOYCE MCMILLAN on DAVID GREIG for Scotsman Festival Mag., August 2007

IF YOU WANTED to name the defining theme of David Greig’s work as a playwright, you could do a lot worse than start with the word “civilisation”. When he first appeared on the Scottish theatre scene in the early 1990’s, he was a writer obsessed with how our western civilisation would adapt to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the re-entry into our world of the nations of eastern Europe. Throughout the whole of that decade – working with Graham Eatough of Suspect Culture, on shows lijke Timeless and Mainstream – he pursued a long meditation on the inner struggles of modern urban civilisation, its dead-eyed materialism, its endless and often apparently hopeless search for intimacy and love.

Towards the end of Nineties – in plays like Victoria, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Outlying Islands at the Traverse – he tussled with the idea of fascism, and its powerful appeal to mid-20th-century European minds. In The Speculator, he looked back to the life of John Law, one of the founding fathers of the modern capitalist system. Boldly, he wrote plays for children and young people on related themes; plays like Petra, which touched on the war in former Yugoslavia, and Dr. Korczak’s Example, his award-winning study of the man who famously ran an orphanage in the doomed Warsaw ghetto. And in 2003, in a defining work called San Diego, he tried to put our whole troubled global village on stage in a single, mind-blowing show. As the best-known young playwright of a high-powered Scottish generation, he also began to forge a relationship with audiences – not only in Edinburgh but in London and across Europe – that made his name a real box-office draw; and he became a leader of that generation, a shrewd observer of the political scene, and a spokesman for theatre and the arts in general. Today, he is dramaturg to the new National Theatre of Scotland, the man charged with developing its relationship with writers and scripts. He is, he tells me, now a community councillor in North Queensferry, where he lives with his wife and two children; and he has just edited a book, out this week, in which Scottish artists and writers write about England.

Yet absurdly, David Greig is still only 38; he still sits in the corner of the Traverse bar in a white T-shirt and jeans, bashing out text on his laptop or in a notebook like an eager boy playwright. And in this year’s Edinburgh Festival, despite all his other responsibilities, he has three plays and a film script on show. At the Traverse, in a final joint project at the theatre with the outgoing director, Philip Howard, there’s Greig’s latest play Damascus, in which a troubled Scotsman tries to sell English-language textbooks in contemporary Syria. Also at the Traverse, there’s a revival of his beautiful small-scale ballad play for young people, Yellow Moon, premiered by TAG in Glasgow last autumn. At the Film Festival, there’s a rehearsed reading by the NTS of his film script, Uncommitted Crimes. And Greig has also written the final script for the huge NTS/Edinburgh International Festival co-production of The Bacchae, set to open at the King’s Theatre this weekend. It’s a daunting workload, but Greig seems energised by it; and if civilisation is still his theme, then his perspective on it has shifted, along with the changing politics of our time.

“For the last half-decade,” he explains, describing the origins of Damascus, “I’ve been doing a lot of work with young playwrights in the Arab world, mainly in Syria, but also in the occupied territories and in other places around the Mediterranean; and of course I began to feel very passionately about the relationship between the west and the Arab world, and all the misconceptions that exist. But I always hesitated to write directly about it. I felt that I could best respond by adapting the work of others. I was just tremendously nervous of trying to represent people in the Middle East, because of that old western thing of misrepresenting and exoticising other cultures. So although I had the central idea of the character of this language text-book salesman, and the image of his little wheeled suitcase, this play just wasn’t coming; until suddenly, earlier this year, I realised it was set in Damascus. So I just had to say to myself, right, you’re an artist, you can use your imagination and do this; and then it just fell into place.”

Given the intensity of Greig’s current focus on the relationship between the west and the rest of the planet, it’s not surprising that he’s also bringing a huge charge of enthusiasm to the job of finalising the text for The Bacchae, which is directed by the NTS’s John Tiffany – the man responsible for last year’s smash-hit show Black Watch – and stars Scottish screen star Alan Cumming, in his first return to Scottish theatre for more than 16 years.

“I think this play speaks incredibly directly to us, right now,” says Greig. “Essentially, it’s about the return of the repressed, which the Greeks imagined as coming from Persia, from the east. Dionysus is the illegitimate and exiled son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman, a princess of Thebes. But when he returns to Thebes to claim his place, the Theban royal family refuse to acknowledge his divinity, and together with his female band of followers he takes a terrible revenge on them.

“So it’s a play obsessed with recognition, at every level. At one level, Euripides has written a classic family drama, about the illegitimate child returning to claim his own. But at the deeper level, what it says is that human nature has to be dealt with and accepted as a whole. If you try to deny the Dionysian side of your nature – the sensual, wild, shape-changing side, the side that wants to lose the self and enter into altered states – then it will come back, and it will kill you. It will destroy your society.

“And I think our society is stll in danger of that. Because what Dionysus is demands is not that we go out and get blind drunk. It’s that we perform the rituals of Dionysus, and lose ourselves in them for a time. And what people in our culture do when they go out binge-drinking on a Friday night is almost the exact opposite of that. They try to lose themselves, yes, but in a completely profane, non-sacred way that is very damaging to them. And as the wise old men Cadmus and Tiresias say to one another in the play, it doesn’t do to deny a god. Even in old age, a man sometimes has to dance.”

And David Greig looks almost ready to dance himself, as he heads off into an Edinburgh Festival for which he has the highest hopes, not least for the growing quality of the Scottish work on show. “You know, there was a moment recently when Black Watch was being acclaimed everywhere, and David Harrower’s Blackbird and my play The American Pilot were both in New York, and I was watching 2000 people giving a standing ovation Sunshine On Leith at the Festival Theatre, and I jjust thought, this is really something. When journalists from London interview me now, they often say, oh, Scottish theatre seems to be going through something of renaissance. And I have to say, well, yes, it is an interesting time. But it isn’t a renaissance. This is something that’s been growing for decades; the difference is that now, you can see it. And that’s fantastic.”