GORDON PARSONS reports on three challenging productions at the Edinburgh International Festival
Flight at Church Hill, 3/5
Minefield at The Studio, 4/5
Rhinoceros at The Royal Lyceum Theatre, 3/5
FLIGHT has to be one of the most innovatory and moving events of the festival. Scottish theatre company Vox Motus’s adaptation of Caroline Brothers’s novel Hinterland tells the story of two young orphaned Afghan brothers’ epic journey across Europe in search of freedom.
Live theatre is essentially a social experience, shared with fellow audience members and performers. Not so here. Individually, we are ushered into small dark booths, provided with headphones and left to view the perilous odyssey — a sequence of shifting, miniature images, with modelled characters living through the dangers and privations shared by countless refugee children today.
The production’s directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds, with their creative and technical team, have achieved much more than a technically powerful way of telling a story.
The voices of cast and narrator, accompanied with atmospheric music, whisper in the ears and the puppets seem more “alive” than living actors. We come to know, and feel for and with, Kabir and Aryan.
Clearly, the impact of this multi-media experience must be intensely personal but few could remain unaffected. This is borne out watching the audience, ushered out in silence, emerge into the light alone with their thoughts.
No documentary or film could have such an impact that hits home with the kind of enlightenment usually felt in childhood, when reality is not mediated and dulled by life experience.
Minefield explores the experiences of six British and Argentinian veterans, three from each side, during and after the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War.
The men, now middle aged and established in their various civilian careers as teacher, lawyer, psychologist, security guard, triathlon champion and musician come together to create a dramatic statement, a memorial to all those others, survivors or not, who fought in yet another of those meaningless conflicts. “Where are the fucking dead in this play?” they demand.
But this is no straight propaganda piece. The men introduce themselves and tell how they became soldiers, with some volunteering and others recruited. They are survivors in more senses than having come through the slaughter alive. More have committed suicide since than were killed through the fighting.
The play is fuelled by humour — there’s a cod strip-show for mates heading for the front and marvellously funny but frightening impersonations of Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri — but the raw anger behind the camaraderie emerges in the group band’s delivery of a Beatles song, with its line: “Get back to where you once belonged” and the ferocious heavy metal of Have You Ever Been to War?
When they look back on their individual life-changing experiences you sense the pain still gnawing but, interestingly, the therapeutic effect of making and presenting the play too.
Minefield is performed in English and Spanish but often words hardly matter. Writer and director Lola Arias’s work has a stark authenticity that only those directly involved can truly appreciate.
The audience, however, can see and feel and take away the message.
Eugene Ionesco, one of the major dramatists in the post-war theatre of the absurd, saw his greatest play — in which people are increasingly turning into rhinoceroses until the “hero” is left as the last human in the world — as a reflection on the stifling conformity during his youth in Romania.
More recently, absurdism has gone out of fashion, perhaps because it has been upstaged by real-world politics.
Zinnie Harris’s new version of Rhinoceros captures the chaos borne out of unquestioning acceptance of what we are presented with as the norm. In it, protagonist Berenger has retired into an alcoholic haze in order to cope with the smug assurance of his fellow townspeople who spend their time in small talk or arguing over logic with no reference to common sense.
When their peace is suddenly disrupted by a marauding rhino destructively charging down the street outside, they express mildly excited surprise even when one woman recognises the beast to be her transformed husband.
As the contagion spreads, the danger is ignored, explained away, or complacently accepted. After all, it is probably all to the good. Only Berenger, hopelessly, and at times hysterically, clings to his humanity.
Harris has tuned the play to the present with references to Trump and to the festival itself, while director Murat Daltaban introduces a surrealist element — we’re introduced to a giant-headed cat at the opening and the chairs carefully placed on stage are increasingly thrown into chaos as the play progresses.
This certainly adds to the visual entertainment but somewhat reduces Ionesco’s underlying seriousness.
The absurd works from within reality and helps us to understand internal contradictions, while surrealism operates on the surface, undermining and consciously rearranging reality.
Audiences may leave this Rhinoceros having thoroughly enjoyed the comedy without necessarily appreciating its deeper shades of tragedy.