Men In The Cities, Spoiling, City Of The Blind, Horizontal Collaboration

THEATRE
Men in the Cities
4 stars ****
Spoiling
4 stars ****
City Of The Blind  4 stars ****
Horizontal Collaboration  3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

IT’S CLICHE TO SAY that human beings are social animals, and that the shared experience of theatre is profoundly linked with that social aspect of ourselves.  Yet if you want to see the energy of social connection in action – and to join in a profound and intelligent exploration of what happens when those sinewy, infuriating bonds begin to break down – then these four opening plays at the Traverse combine to offer a fascinating journey through the political and psychological landscape of our time.

Chris Goode’s Men In The Cities, created by Goode’s own company in association with the Royal Court, seems destined to become a quiet classic of post-social theatre, a fierce, poetic and troubled 80-minute dramatic monologue which conjures up a range of characters adrift in 21st century city – all male, all more or less alone – and follows them through a few months of their lives, beginning on the day after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, outside Woolwich Barracks, on the 22 May last year.

The murder features in the play as an epitome of the violence that forms a frightening undercurrent to Goode’s slightly fractured male lives, which include his own.  From the furiously violent and disturbed ten-year-old Rufus, to the suicidal gay  twentysomething Ben, to ageing widower Jeff, the men are either fascinated by violent internet porn, or drawn to the apparently purposeful violence of Lee Rigby’s killers, or driven to turn their violence against themselves.  And if Goode has no resolution to offer, to the huge questions he raises about the relationship between sex and violence, and what happens to that kind of male energy in our increasingly virtual world, he summons all of his creative power to the task of making something shapely, beautiful and vivid out of this diffuse stage poem for our time, which begins by drifting through the 21st century city of our minds, and reaches its climax in a terrifying urban howl of irretrievable pain and loss.

For all Goode’s poetic honesty and brilliance, though, there’s no denying the surge of pure dramatic energy into the room, when John McCann’s brief new Scottish play Spoiling takes the Traverse 2 stage.  Presented as part of this year’s Made In Scotland season at the Fringe, Spoiling is one of relatively few Edinburgh plays this year to tackle head-on the subject of the forthcoming independence referendum, and its possible aftermath.  It revolves around McCann’s inspired creation of Fiona, a nine-months-pregnant SNP politician who is foreign-minister-designate in the new government of an independent Scotland, but is having trouble with the speech full of emollient platitudes written for her by her civil servants, on the occasion of her first official meeting with her UK counterpart.

There’s no idealisation of anyone or anything, in McCann’s play.  Fiona is a bit of a political thug in her way; the young Northern Irish civil servant sent to bring her to heel is a well-trained bully himself, and gives as good as he gets, before the two reach a kind of understanding.  If McCann’s 50-minute play is not too bothered about subtlety and decorum, though, it contains a wild streak of cumulative poetry about the nature of modern nationhood, and has the courage to dive straight into the badlands  of a recognisable future political crisis without pause or apology.  And Gabriel Quigley’s magnificent central performance as Fiona is as brave a piece of female work as you’ll see anywhere on this Fringe, loud, complex, unlovely, and yet completely truthful, and finally alluring.

If Spoiling draws huge energy from its tight and familiar political context, though, then it’s pehaps David Leddy’s exploratory double-bill of Traverse shows that looks most deeply into our current crisis of political connection, and the underlying reasons for it.  Leddy’s project comes in two parts.  There’s City Of The Blind, a three-hour screen and audio drama in six instalments, presented as part of Made In Scotland, and  made available online; and there’s Horizontal Collaboration, a one-hour live theatre piece in which different actors each night read formal evidence related to a similar story.  Both plays are set against the backdrop of UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, and touch on allegations of rape and sexual exploitation by UN officials, notably in the Democratic Reublic Of Congo.

Of the two events, City Of The Blind is by far the more complex, interesting and dramatic, featuring a fine central performance from Claire Knight as Cassie, the newly-appointed UN troubleshooter who finds herself facing frightening threats when she tries to expose a history of male rape by UN officials in Africa.  Keith Feming, Shelley King, Angela Darcy and many others are impressive as a whole range of colleagues and friends, with Louise Ludgate in terrific form as Cassie’s troubled sister; and the show’s barrage of different media – from sound recordings to surveillance camera footage to still photographs and intercepted text messages – perfectly captures a story which explores not only sexual exploitation in Africa, but the blurred boundaries between sex and violence throughout an increasingly pornographic internet culture.

Horizontal Collaboration, by contrast, is an interesting and thought-provoking but completely static theatrical experience in the form of recited evidence to a war crimes tribunal, not helped at all by the fact that the four actors are not familiar with the material, despite some impressive work by an all-female cast on the day I saw the show.  City Of The Blind is essentially a complex, inventive television series, and Horizontal Collaboration is only just theatre, so limited is its visual dimension.  If this Leddy project has little to do with live performance, though, it still looks hard, and brilliantly, at once of the key sources of social disintegration in the west; which iies in the corruption of our political institutions at all levels, and in their increasing failure to represent the values they claim to embody, and for which they still so arrogantly demand respect, not only at home, but across the troubled planet.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24 August.
pp. 330, 354, 292, 315.

ENDS ENDS

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