Daily Archives: August 16, 2010

Do We Look Like Refugees?, The Cry

Do We Look Like Refugees?
Assembly@ George Street (Venue 3)
4 stars ****
The Cry
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
3 stars ***

POLITICAL THEATRE always faces tough questions: how to alert the world to horrific suffering without killing hope, and how to analyse the causes of injustice, without telling the audience what to think.   Do We Look Like Refugees? – presented at the Assembly Rooms by Beyond Borders Theatre, and performed by a fine team of actors from the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi – is a show that perhaps errs on the side of gentleness, in its portrayal of the fate of the tens of thousands of Georgians who had to flee from the northern Georgian province of South Ossetia, after Russian forces invaded in 2008.

The play is based on recorded interviews with people now living in refugee settlements in Georgia, and its technique is to play those real-life recordings – raw, untranslated, with coughs and pauses still in place – straight into the ears of the actors via headphones; they repeat the words, meticulously recreating the characters who originally spoke them, and they are surtitled for an English-speaking audience.

What is most interesting about the play is that the Ossetian refugees in Georgia are not the world’s most unfortunate displaced people; a little town of prefabs has been built for them, they have enough to eat, and life goes on in this strange new settlement, with hair salons and small businesses developing, and people marrying, dying, giving birth.  Yet still, they feel robbed of something fundamental – the landscape they call home, their autonomy as a community, the relationships ripped apart by war.  And they sing – beautifully, richly, straight from the heart, as Georgians do, in good times and bad; while these mighty actors drop all sense of grandeur, and devote every ounce of their skill to a show that records the plight of a people, but also pays tribute to their energy, their resilience, and their sheer cultural strength.

Badac’s The Cry, by contrast, is a show driven by fury against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and the violent means used to maintain Israel’s dominance there.  Played out inside a cage of wire fencing, in a shabby room at the top of Adam House, it reproduces the experience of the Edinburgh-based Palestinian poet Ghazi Hussein, who has been imprisoned 23 times for his beliefs and writings, and has suffered torture during those prison terms.

The problem with The Cry, though, is that the anger it mainly expresses- and which it reproduces and reifies with terrfying energy – is not the clear, white, justified rage of those fighting against oppression, but the thick black fury of the guards and torturers, obscene, self-reinforcing, rooted in wilful ignorance, and unleashed in the room with a force that is more sickening and sadistic than enlightening or revealing.  This deafening 60-minute vision of torture is leavened, though, by the beauty of Hussein’s poetry; and it’s delivered with at least some lyricism, in the gaps between torture sessions, by writer and director Steve Lambert, who also plays the poet.

Until 30 August, pp. 246, 240

Note: Badac Theatre Company have asked for it to be pointed out that although Ghazi Hussein is a Palestinian poet, the text does not suggest that this play is particularly about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, or that the guards and torturers portrayed are Israelis.

The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises
Royal Lyceum Theatre (EIF)
4 stars ****

LOOK ACROSS this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and you’ll find dozens of plays about the cult of sexual freedom, porn and pleasure that has seized our society since the 1960’s.  Ernest Hemingway, though, is the grandfather of them all, when it comes to writing about whether an endless quest for pleasure really brings happiness.  Back in 1926, when The Sun Also Rises became a best-seller, those freedoms were still confined to the wealthy elite whose adventures Hemingway describes, as they follow the alluring Brett Ashley – English aristocrat, and despair-ridden good-time-girl – from Paris to Pamplona, and the blood and thunder of the fiesta there.

Yet the questions he raised about his characters – their drinking, their despair, their casual or doomed relationships – have a tremendous contemporary resonance; and in the figure of his impotent and war-damaged narrator, Jake Barnes, he also embodies a deep sense of sterility, and of a future lost.

In bringing Hemingway’s story to the stage, the Elevator Repair Service of New York brilliantly avoid questions of updating or authenticity by setting the whole action in a generic bar-room of any place or period, and adopting a Brechtian rehearsal-room technique that combines Jake’s narrative – performed with tremendous quiet clarity by Mike Iveson – with a series of roughly-presented scenes from the story, starring a memorably brittle and charismatic Lucy Taylor as Brett.

At almost four hours, this version of Hemingway’s story is immensely long.  It’s dazzlingly free and inventive, though, in its use of music spanning the whole century, and of sudden bursts of wild choreography, to create a profoundly intelligent piece of theatre, that effortlessly bridges the decades since the 1920’s.  And if it sometimes seems to ramble a little, there’s never a moment that doesn’t seem rich with some aspect of the last 90 years of western culture; and with our long journey from jazz age to electronic age, in a quest for not only for freedom, but for authenticity, and for something we can call love.

Until 17 August,  EIF p. 24.