For Their Own Good
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)
ON A FRINGE full of shows about death and bereavement, and our inadequate ways of dealing with them, you won’t find any more original – in inspiration, in setting, in tone – than Untied Artists’ For Their Own Good, playing briefly at Summerhall. On a stage surrounded by domestic clutter – and some little models of typical British homes, glowing with light – two men in big aprons work and talk; one is older, the other is the new recruit, and they work in a slaughterhouse, sometimes shooting horses that have reached the end of their lives.
The centrepiece of the set, though, is an amazing piece of stage sculpture, an almost full-size carthorse made of metal wire and scraps of fabric, which – raised or lowered on a hook – makes both an astonishingly poignant and credible live horse, and a convincing carcass, hanging from the hook, dripping blood; and at first, this powerful show – by director Steven Johnstone and performers Jake Oldershaw and Jack Trow, with text from live interviews and elsewhere – seems like an impressionistic piece, gazing into the little homes to glimpse the plight of the people and pets there, and meditating on our attitudes to the mercy killing of animals through imagery, puppetry, dialogue, recorded interviews, and a dark, thrilling opening burst of old English folk song.
In the end, though, For Their Own Good also develops a real narrative drive, as it becomes apparent that one of the men is also approaching the end of his useful life; and what emerges is a rich, complex, disturbing show about men who know how to kill, and about how compassion has many faces, not all of them soft and smiling. In the end, it’s a bleak world these men inhabit; there’s not much love, to redeem what can’t be cured and to make suffering bearable. The show is clear, though, about the differences between animals and humans. We know what is coming, they don’t; and that gap opens up a whole moral universe of uncertainty, into which this bold show steps, with a rare energy and power.
Note to subs: The name of this company really is Untied Artists, it’s not a misprint for “united”.