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Full of Eastern Promise? – Carving Up the Landscape in a Theatre of Lovely War

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Love and war are the staples, not just of all drama, but of pretty much 
how the world functions. And, as Shakespeare, the Greeks and the 
multiple myth-makers behind the Bible were smart enough to spot, 
possibly from experience, the personal and the political always go hand 
in dagger-wielding hand. Two very different Edinburgh International 
Festival shows recognise this just as clearly, even as they don't 
exactly mess with the template, but subvert it enough to bring their 
epic and all too familiar stories bang up to date.

While just appointed director of Zurich Opera House Andreas Homoki's 
production of David et Jonathas (David and Jonathan) sets Mark-Antoine 
Charpentier's 1688 Old Testament opera with a libretto by Francois 
Bretoneau in its original landscape on the eve of war between the 
Israelites and Phillistines, Polish wunderkind Grzegorz Jarzyna's 2008: 
Macbeth is an explicitly post-modern political parable. Jarzyna was 
last in Edinburgh with his TR Warszawa company in 2008 itself with an 
all too literal take on Sarah Kane's parting-shot last play prior to 
her suicide aged 28 in 1999, 4:48 Psychosis. This time out he adapts 
Stanislaw Baranczak's translation and places it in the thick of a 
contemporary middle eastern conflict where the action is bombarded with 
pyrotechnics, audio-visual effects and a layered sound-scape that hits 
home the real cost of the war on terror that comes out of the complex 
web of personal ambition and public glory that drives Shakespeare's 
play.

If such a spectacle sounds a long way from the super-realist 
application of Kane's poetic meditation, consider Kane's own 
appropriation of classical drama for her debut play, Blasted. While the 
then 23 year old's arrival was initially reviled by out-of-touch 
arbiters of taste, the extremities of Blasted clearly copped their 
moves from the Greeks, who weren't exactly shy of telling if not 
exactly showing their audiences depictions of eye-gouging, infanticide, 
incest and other ills brought on in a similarly brutal fashion by 
Kane's characters holed-up in a cheap hotel in a war-zone.

One of Kane's contemporary influences was playwright Howard Barker, 
whose large-scale imagined history plays owed more to classical tragedy 
than modern-day naturalism. Rather than take a didactically leftist 
stance as with many of his post-1968 contemporaries, Barker's politics 
when at his most expansive pomp focused on the erotic and the profane. 
One of his ostensibly smaller works was Judith, which was toured by the 
Barker-devoted Wrestling School company in 1995.

Barker's play takes its cue from the Old Testament Book of Judith, a 
beautiful widow in the besieged city of Bethuliah (most likely the site 
of the Palestinian city of Jenin), who enters the tent of Holofernes, 
the general from Assyria (now Iraq) who is about to destroy her 
homeland. Recognising Holofernes' desire for her, Judith uses her wiles 
to seduce her would-be captor until he falls asleep, then beheads him. 
In Barker's version, Judith too falls prey to her desires, and the 
power games that ensue become a two-way thing of unconsummated love, 
or, in a play that is both ancient and modern in its depiction of women 
as powerful sexual beings in their own right, possibly just lust.


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With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what Homoki makes of 
David and Jonathas in this new co-production between Opera Comique and 
Theatre de Caen in association with conductor William Christie's Les 
Arts Florissants ensemble, which comes directly to Edinburgh from 
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence.

David and Jonathas is taken from the Old Testament Book of Samuel, 
after David has just killed Goliath and kept the Philistines, at war 
with Israel and King Saul, at bay. David and Jonathas, Saul's son, bond 
over Goliath's severed head. Charpentier's opera opens with a prophesy 
that Saul will lose both his crown and his children before we find that 
David has been banished by a jealous Saul because of his friendship 
with Jonathas, and that David is seeking refuge with the Phillistines. 
A truce allows the pair to meet again, before Saul accuses David of 
treason and, with David and Jonathas forced to part,  leads his army 
into battle against the Phillistines once more. With Saul facing 
defeat, he falls on his own sword, while Jonathas is fatally wounded 
and dies in David's arms. Even as David is crowned the new king of 
Israel, he remains inconsolable over the loss of Jonathas.

While platonic and erotic counter-arguments concerning the relationship 
between David and Jonathas have ensued for decades, writer Allan 
Massie's 1995 novel, King David, goes so far as to depict David's 
relationship with Jonathas and others as being openly homosexual.

Coming at a time when anti-gay laws are being introduced in the Ukraine 
and other places while the call for equality regarding gay marriage is 
becoming increasingly prevalent, how Homoki deals with David and 
Jonathan's relationship will be crucial. Will it settle for the sort of 
buddy-style bro-mance beloved of many dramatic double-acts, or will it 
explore the story's more ambiguous elements of homo-eroticism and a 
love that dares not speak its name with contemporary frankness?

Homoki might wish to look to another EIF 2008 production for guidance. 
Dorian Gray was choreographer Matthew Bourne's reworking of Oscar 
Wilde's novel that recast it among the vapid excesses of the 
twenty-first century fashion industry. In Bourne's world, Dorian 
becomes a model and pure pleasure seeking poster-boy icon of a perfume 
campaign, painter Basil becomes a YBA-style photographer, while genders 
are swapped so that Lord Henry becomes the perma-shaded Lady H, while 
actress Sybil Vane becomes a male dancer called Cyril.


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In a way, Shakespeare's plays are easy to adapt to such contemporary 
backdrops than even the Greek or biblical epics. So universal are his 
themes that one could arguably apply a middle-eastern context to any of 
his tragedies. While twenty-first century theatre-makers shouldn't be 
shy about reinventing Shakespeare for the here and now of things, one 
also applies directorial concept onto modern-day icons at one's peril. 
It worked for Catalan enfant terrible Calixto Bieito in his EIF 
production of Hamlet a few years back, which was set in a pink-coloured 
after-hours dive frequented by modern-day Tarantino-sired gangsters and 
their molls. From the opening piano-bar rendition of the Hollies 1969 
hit, He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, which threw down the gauntlet to 
Shakespeare purists from the off, this was an audacious and at times 
brutal reworking.

As was too Max Stafford-Clark's 2004 production of Macbeth for his Out 
of Joint company, which looked to Idi Amin's bloody regime in Uganda 
for inspiration, and featured a primarily black cast and a white 
actress playing Lady M. After touring England and some African states, 
Stafford-Clark's Ugandan Macbeth, which featured Macbeth/Amin sporting 
the same Glengarry headwear the character of Amin  wore in the 
big-screen adaptation of Giles Foden's novel, The Last King of 
Scotland, which was set in the same milieu.

A claustrophobic site-specific production, Stafford-Clark's production 
eventually arrived in Edinburgh as part of the Traverse Theatre's 
season. Played outwith the August festival season, the production was 
housed in the Underbelly, the cavernous space beneath the Central 
Library on George IV Bridge first used by Grid Iron theatre company for 
their production of Gargantua in 1998, and now managed as one of the 
largest venues on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

With Stafford-Clark's production arriving in town outwith festival 
season, torrential rain outside caused the already makeshift lighting 
rig to fail in an already moodily illuminated affair. The audience 
found themselves up close and personal witnesses to voodoo rites and 
barbaric atrocities that recast Shakespeare's play as something made 
more dangerous, both by its close proximity to the arbiter of that 
barbarism, and to its wilfully roughshod environment. Watching 
Stafford-Clark and his team pressed to the wall at the back of the room 
lighting the actors with nothing more than pocket torches gave things 
an even edgier frisson.

More recently, actor Alan Cumming made a prodigal's return to Scotland 
to appear in a take on Macbeth that saw him perform the entire play 
solo. Set in a psychiatric hospital, John Tiffany's National Theatre of 
Scotland production ditch the despots in favour of a self-analytical 
tragedy in which the patient he played used Shakespeare's words as both 
a survival tool and a way to vent his own madness. Once crowned, 
Cumming's world leader pretend delivered his speeches from a wheelchair 
he imagined to be a throne. Lady M's opening words were delivered from 
the bathtub where she languished in her own ambitious splendour.

Modern plays too are ripe for reinvention. In an EIF 2008 season that 
featured Austrian composer HK Gruber conducting Bertolt Brecht and Kurt 
Weill's anti-capitalist junkyard opera, Rise and Fall of Mahoggany, for 
the opening concert of a programme marketed with the sort of block 
stencil font last seen on a 1970s picket-line, the appearance of Nigel 
Williams' play, Class Enemy, shouldn't have been a surprise, but was.

Williams's play was originally set in the classroom of a South London 
comprehensive school in 1978, and was something of a prototype of 
streetwise yoof drama which looked at power games in a blackboard 
jungle a la a gobbier Grange Hill. Bosnian director Haris Pasovic' 
adaptation for his East West Theatre Company updated the action to 
post-war Sarajevo in 2007, where the seven teenagers adolescent sense 
of territory became even more pronounced by giving them roots with 
oppositional ethnicities.

But even brand new work can misfire, as English National Opera proved 
in 2006 with Gaddafi: A Living Myth, an epic musical based on the life 
and times of Libyan demagogue, General Muammar Gaddafi. The opera 
featured a libretto by playwright Shan Khan, who for EOF 2005 premiered 
  Prayer Room, a play that looked at cross-faith confrontation a 
generation up from Class Enemy.

With Ramon Tikaram playing the title role, Gaddafi was set to a furious 
hip-hop, ragga, indo-dub, dancehall and jungle score composed and 
played by multi-racial agit-dance provocateurs Asian Dub Foundation. 
Evita it wasn't, and still wouldn't have been even if ENO had waited 
until Gaddafi was deposed and subsequently killed in 2011 for their 
show to have a logical conclusion.


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Set to be performed in a purpose-built space in the Royal Highland 
Centre's Lowland Hall on the edge of the city, 2008: Macbeth looks set 
to be the sort of immersive experience that takes its lead from the 
multi-media overload of underground live art. In its targets, Jarzyna 
clearly has America in his sights rather than the middle east itself. 
Uncle Sam does a magic act and a woman in Elvis drag does a dance 
routine for the grunts as if part of a grotesque concert party 
entertaining the troops. There is sex, violence, nudity and at least 
one physical motif that was also in 4:48 Psychosis that suggests here 
at least that Jarzyna's troubled female lead might be pissing on an 
entire nation and the bloody history that made it the biggest 
make-believe democracy on the planet.

But beyond such shock tactics there is erotic intimacy too after a 
fashion. A scene in which Lady M straddles her husband up against a 
Coca Cola-filled fridge as she licks Duncan's blood off his fingers 
resembles nothing so much as 1980s soft-core flick, 91/2 Weeks. Again, 
the symbolism of a land playing out its own porno fantasies with blood 
on its hands are hardly subtle. Since Jarzyna's production was first 
performed four years ago prior to its Edinburgh run, things might also 
have moved on a tad to the extent that real events have actually proved 
more shocking than those depicted onstage.

This is one of the problems of contemporising the classics. However 
radically up to the minute a concept might be, once that minute is up, 
things don't look quite so relevant anymore as history moves on.  At 
their best, though, those minutes will become part of that history, and 
the killing fields of what some still have faith enough to believe 
they're promised lands become something else again. As both David and 
Jonathas and 2008: Macbeth should confirm more urgently than ever, the 
personal and the political are messed-up surrogates, both in search of 
salvation. Even though they might be permanently at loggerheads, try 
and separate the two, and things will only get messier.


2008: Macbeth, Royal Highland Centre, Edinburgh, August 11th-18th; 
David et Jonathas, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, August 17, 19-20
www.eif.co.uk

Arts Journal issue 2, August 2012

ends

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