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Damascus / The Walworth Farce / Long Time Dead / England

Traverse Theatre
4 stars
A writer of English language text-books attempts to ply his wares on a flying visit to a part of the Middle East where life goes on despite the ongoing state of war. As TV images of Alan Johnson’s release and the election of a new UK Prime Minister flicker by un-noticed in the hotel lobby, he attempts negotiations with his contact, Muna, who tartly points out some of the more absurd things taken for granted in the west but which will be lost in translation. As Muna’s cynical boss attempts in vain to woo her, Zakaria the bell-hop latches on to the visitor, who he eventually gives his life to, so desperate is he for American girls and Hollywood movies.

On one level, Greig’s play, in Philip Howard’s cool, measured and perfectly enunciated production, is like an old-fashioned and utterly serious television drama that’s rarely made these days unless Stephen Poliakoff’s name is attached to it. Its concerns of lost idealism, lost faith and a fascination for the pan-global nuances of language suggest they’re gleaned from Greig’s own experiences in seeing his work translated.

But this is rarely po-faced, and the scenes where Muna translates while her boss comes onto her are the funniest in the play. If giving way to the epiphany of a one-night romance is an easy trick, Greig is also immortalising Zakaria’s story in a way that honours his subject.

The play’s elegant naturalism is broken up by the vivacious presence of Dolya Gavanski’s ex KGB Christian Marxist transexual pianist, who churns out muzak in the hotel bar and becomes witness, chorus and conscience of a play in which worlds collide and find some kind of peace, only to self-destruct once more.

The Walworth Farce
Traverse Theatre
4 stars
Ever since his astonishing UK debut, Disco Pigs, playwright Enda Walsh has explored a series of grotesque and manic landscapes, where his characters only way to survive is to create their own increasingly bizarre worlds, which inevitably collapse.

Walsh fleshes out this idea even more in this madcap tragedy, in which, holed up in a ramshackle Elephant and Castle flat, Irish emigrant Dinny and his two sons Sean and Blake prepare for their daily performance of a dramatised fantasy of their own lives back in Cork. The already crazed yarn becomes even more messed up when check-out girl Hayley turns up with the bag of shopping Sean left behind.

The play-within-a-play format may initially look like dragged-up slapstick, but is actually a far more serious device, in which Dinny builds his brood a fortress to preserve their Irish identity, uncorrupted by the London streets. The self-deluding sentimental myth of a home that never really was may initially keep him sane, though the damage it has done to his sons is a heartbreaking display of social dysfunction and eventual breakdown.

Director Mikel Murfi never lets the action run away from itself, which makes Denis Conway’s Dinny and Tadhg Murphy and Garrett Lombard as his two boys’ resemblance to League Of Gentlemen characters even eerier. At the end, the choice Sean must make, of whether to face the world alone or else stay in and make up a story all his own, makes you want to shake him into life. Walsh’s most ambitious work to date is a manic little masterpiece of the hidden subcultures that exist behind closed doors very close to home.

Long Time Dead
Traverse Theatre
3 stars
There’s a moment towards the end of Rona Munro’s play about people pushing themselves to the brink of death in order to remind themselves they’re alive, when a group of climbers are gathered around the hospital bed of their recovering leader, Grizzly. Hailed as heroes in the papers following their ascent, Grizzly asks his young female charge Gnome if they made it onto News At Ten. ‘Course not,’ she replies. ‘Nobody died.’

Which is the crux of Munro’s exploration of the extremes sometimes needed to lay old ghosts to rest. Flitting between the halfway house of a hospital ward and a mountainside no-man’s-land, Grizzly forms a bond with a widowed nurse while watching over an injured Gnome, and becomes determined to revisit the mountain where he lost his brother thirteen years previously.

Roxanna Silbert’s co-production between Paines Plough and The Drum Theatre, Plymouth renders the play’s plea for life larger than it possibly deserves. Miriam Buether’s set is as dazzling as Chahine Yavroyan’s gorgeous lighting, and the performances, particularly by Garry Cooper as the quietly obsessed Grizzly, possessed with an infectious warmth beyond their surface grit. The symbolism of the quest is as recognisable as any of several climbing-based plays which have appeared over the last few years. Within this framework, though, Munro has served up a slice of real humanity with all its flaws intact en route to healing.

Traverse 4@The Fruitmarket Gallery
4 stars
Art sells. Tim Crouch’s beautiful new piece puts himself and fellow performer Hannah Ringham in the frame and in-situ with The Fruitmarket’s current exhibition by Alex Hartley as its back-drop. As guides, they lead us through a world where heritage industry stately homes co-exist with the national health, while first edition rarities become increasingly status symbols to name-drop. Only a painting, alas, remains immortal, as Crouch unfolds a story of one man’s failed heart and his art dealer boyfriend who buys a transplant from a foreign land, bought and sold like one more colonised installation flogged off to the highest bidder.

There are times in the first half when you’re reminded of Derek Jarman’s masterpiece, Blue, so poetically hypnotic are what gradually unfolds as a meditation on life and death. Similarly, Dan Jones’ soundtrack at times recalls Einsturzende’s Neubauten’s famous attack on London’s ICA with drills and cement mixers. Combined, England says much about capitalism’s love affair with 21st century art stars. At England’s close, you can’t help but notice that one of Hartley’s pictures on display is titled A Gentle Collapsing. It’s an image all too appropriate for a transaction which has given life, but has cost a whole lot more.

All run until August 26, various times

The Herald, August 2007


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