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THREE new productions at the Edinburgh Festival, from Britain, Australia and Uruguay, allow you to glimpse a particular genre of contemporary theatre — the autobiographical performance — in a global perspective.
Broadly, this kind of work allows the theatre-maker to explore the confessional and therapeutic potential of performance, to lead the audience through a personal experience on behalf of a community, and to speak up for a minority or illuminate a taboo subject.
The personal tone will speak up for the cultural and political situation of the subject and, while it carries the imprimatur of personal authenticity it is by its own nature self-indulgent, narcissistic and exhibitionist.
So, how much can such work say, and is it good art?
The two English language productions have clearly been promoted by a policy of inclusivity typical of the liberal arts culture of contemporary UK and Australia.
Julia Hales, from Western Australia, may have Down’s syndrome but her play You Know That We Belong Together deploys highly intelligent strategies by which to make a popular polemic on behalf of the Down’s syndrome community, and she carries it off with aplomb.
She hijacks Home and Away, the interminably long, soppy, all-white and non-neurodiverse Australian soap opera, and picks out audience members to read the script while she casts herself as one of the characters.
Alongside these gentle acts of sabotage we see video interviews with friends and colleagues from the DS community that are empathetic, funny and revealing of their inner lives.
The human experience she aims to reveal is overflowing with emotionality, and also emotional intelligence, and at moments achieves an intimate, poetic communication between the audience and her subjects that is both moving and expressive of isolation. At one point, one woman asks herself “Why am I in the world I’m in?”
But as a whole the show is more exposition than drama, and warm and fuzzy rather than sharp or angry. While Hales is a very capable spokeswoman who is able to demonstrate what it feels like to be on the receiving end of social prejudice you feel that her extraordinary work is not yet finished.
mandla rae, by contrast is a British-Zimbabwean performer and completely out of her depth. It was frankly cruel to over-promote undeveloped work into high visibility when there is no tangible reason to do so, no story to tell and no recognisable experience beyond being ostentatiously fragile, shy and over-privileged.
It was more interesting to watch the simultaneous translation into sign language than to witness the performance and the show was a disaster: incoherent, self-indulgent and meaningless.
If this is what “inclusivity” achieves via the seductive lure of “performing yourself,” then the policy seems underwritten by a sadistic attitude towards vulnerable people.
She should watch the Uruguayan Sergio Blanco’s performance When You Walk Over My Grave, which is the outstanding foreign production of the festival and a master-class in autobiographical theatre, or “Auto-ficion” as he calls it.
The key manoeuvre is to establish immediately and beautifully the imaginary perspective that the author has on his own experience, which the other shows struggled to do.
Blanco couldn’t be clearer: his three protagonists are addressing us from the after-life, an unhurried place of wish-fulfillment where they sing sweetly and treat one another with a playful respect and politeness. It is a totally artificial environment of astroturf and impeccably well-curated video surveillance.
They tell us how they died and how they felt about their respective funerals. Each has a shifting identity that questions, with gentle curiosity, the motivations of the others. And the “minority experience” in question is that of the playwright, a gay man who wishes to die, and goes through with it.
Who is this character? The actor announces his role as being “Me,” and proceeds to organise his assisted suicide in Switzerland as well as the subsequent delivery of his dead body to a reliable and overwhelmingly good-looking gay necrophile.
His self-portrait is so convincingly conveyed by Sebastian Serantes, who puts across the character of the author as both questing intellectual and self-mocking narcissist, that it is a shock when Blanco comes onstage to take a bow, and the art reveals itself.
And you can see why it is Blanco alone that has mastered this genre: he is able to separate artist from performer even as he maintains their sameness. This is a very significant achievement.
And along the way he demonstrates the paradox of a mass-media and Christian culture that is obsessed with death and dying even while it maintains the taboo.
The production is flawless and exquisite. It takes the kind of technological theatre that Robert Lepage made fashionable and uses it to open up completely new vistas on contemporary life.
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