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Fall / Pornography / The New Electric Ballroom / Terminus - Edinburgh Fringe 2008

Fall - 4 stars
Pornography – 4 stars
The New Electric Ballroom – 4 stars
Terminus – 4 stars
All at Traverse theatre until Aug 24, various times

There’s something going on at The Traverse this year. If Edinbugh’s most important venue’s two in-house productions are anything to go by, explicitly political work has come of age. In different ways, Zinnie Harris’s Fall and Simon Stephens’s Pornography explore a 21st century landscape that’s more in flux than ever as it occupies a map that’s continually being redrawn.

Arriving onstage a week after the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, Fall couldn’t have been more timely. In an un-named country’s post-war bomb-site, Kate stands in the cell of war criminal Evener, quizzing him about the husband it turns out she never knew. Pierre, the country’s out-of-depth Prime Minister caught between his wife Kiki and his spin doctor Howard is encouraged to network his way to stability. Meanwhile, Justine, an international prisoner’s aid worker on the make is granted an audience to plead for leniency for the now captive mass murderers. This accidental western intervention sets in motion a series of events that leads to even more martyrdom.

This final part of Harris’s loose-knit trilogy of war plays, a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company, finds her all too familiar world at an impasse, where the need for revenge and an ingrained violence outweighs anything resembling reconciliation.

Dominic Hill’s production, his first as Traverse artistic director, wears its weightiness on its sleeve in a big production which cuts to the human heart of the damage done to a society in need of healing during a volatile time that could lead to even greater conflict. Beyond obvious but unavoidable symbolism, there are two moments when one character holds another’s head. In different ways, these touching displays change everything.

Simon Stephens takes a radically different approach in Pornography, more a dramatic collage and a meditation on how we live now than a play per se. Set in London during the summer of 2005, the successful Olympic Games bid and the same week’s Live 8 concert are rudely intruded upon by the events we now know as 7/7.

A great big mess of TV screens, stereo speakers and exposed lights litter the stage, all connected up somehow by a riot of wires and extension cables that stretches out from the auditorium. Here, eight lives orbit around London, from the randy schoolboy’s show-and-tell to the brother and sister who chase ghosts in St Pancras and the jaded lecturer who offers his ex student a bed for the night. On one level it’s a tribute, not just to the dead, but to London as a throbbing hub of life. On another, it’s an elegy for the millions left behind. Without it ever being mentioned, the row on row of photographs of the missing that hung on railings outside King’s Cross station comes to mind.

So where’s the obscenity? Is it the private desires of lonely people desperate to connect? Or is it the phony triumphalism of an event nobody asked for and the smug platitudes of proselytising pop stars vain enough to believe they’re saving the world? Sean Holmes’ surprisingly witty co-production between The Traverse and Birmingham Rep is a fascinatingly up to the minute piece of internal psycho-geography, a London love affair alive with hart and soul.

Running alongside these two big home-grown works are pieces of equal bravura from Ireland. Enda Walsh has long mined a restless vein of small-town fantasias occupied by tragically heightened characters who salve the passing of some past epiphany by reliving them every day. Where 2007’s The Walworth Farce, looked at an all-male enclave of Irish émigrés struggling to hold onto their identity s they shacked up in Kilburn, The New Electric Ballroom – a companion piece of sorts – originally presented in Munich in 2005 - - upends a battleship-grey living room in a forgotten fishing vilage to entire into a similarly repetitive ritual.

Here three sisters attempt to recapture the magic of a dance hall where they mis-spent their youth, alive with possibility. Dusting down their posh frocks and pink heels, Breda, Clara and Ada’s dancing days may be done, but in their stores there’s life beyond the fish factory, soundtracked by an ancient tape recorder. Into this world steps delivery man Patsy, who for a fleeting moment beyond his regular visitations seems like he may yet get his moment in the spotlight.

Walsh’s own production for the Galway based Druid company bursts into life like a dam of bottled-up regret, its torrent of words tumbling out of each woman’s mouth with the vain hope that they might regain a long-lost special something. As with The Walworth Farce, each explosion becomes a desperate mantra of survival, made stranger by a heightened sense of enrenched intimacy and co-dependence. Walsh’s verbal sprawl recal both Beckett’s Endgame and Tom Murphy’s Bailegangairre. Here, though, through a quartet of relentlessly precise performances the womens’ lipstick traces aren’t allowed to fade, but are savagely smudged in a way that suggests a present even more damaged than the past.

Like Enda Walsh, Mark O’Rowe is a master of the fantastical. O’Rowe’s specialism is to plumb the depths of the everyday through a series of criss-crossing monolgues that jump-cut across increasingly wild flights of fancy. In Terminus, it becomes other-worldly too in a three-handed rollercoaster ride through familiar small town debauches which are then upended by devils, angels and soul-selling yarns to hell and back.

Behind a giant picture frame, three figures perch beneah oversize shards of broken glass on similar constructions that give them the air of other-realm elves hiding in the debris. The testimonies of the two women and sole man known, like aninymously classofied specimens beamed up by aliens as A,B and C, become matter-of-fact survivors tales told in internal rhymes that at times borders towards Irish rap. Streetwise they may be, but as the demons built of worms and wings of desire succumb to the pleasures of more earthly flesh, the trio become complicit in everything that follows. If the devil made them do it, it’s one hell of a leap.

The Herald, August 2008

ends

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