Critic's Notebook: Edinburgh takes on violence, religion

EDINBURGH — Like any good festival, the Edinburgh Fringe knows how to let its hair down. This August’s event, however, was uncommonly sober.

The first show to open at the Traverse, the city’s traditional home of new writing, was Henry Adam’s “Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5,” a polemical broadside against religious fundamentalism in the Middle East. The last to open at the same theater was “Township Stories,” a grim South African serial-killer melodrama by Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae in which a roll call of 10 characters comes to a brutal end.

In the three weeks in between those two openings, the themes of Iraq, U.S. imperialism, violence and religion were everywhere. That isn’t to say it was all doom and gloom. The best examples of this angry young wave were as theatrically vibrant as they were socially tuned in.

Leading the pack was “Black Watch,” the first appearance at the Fringe of the new National Theater of Scotland and the runaway hit of the festival. Gregory Burke’s verbatim play, based on interviews with soldiers in one of Scotland’s oldest regiments, gives voice to a strand of working-class experience usually lost in the maelstrom of debate between peaceniks and warmongers.

Burke’s vision is unsentimental, honest, funny and raw — superbly complemented by helmer John Tiffany, who rose to the challenges imposed by the hangarlike space of a former military drill hall with a confident theatricality and bold use of movement.

The Black Watch regiment was stationed at Camp Dogwood in Iraq after U.S. forces moved out, and one of the play’s themes is the disillusionment of soldiers who believed their role in Iraq was heavy-handed and bullying.

That observation chimed with the opinions of many in the audience, unhappy about the U.K.’s involvement in Iraq. But, unusually, the play’s political purpose was to challenge a liberal-left audience about its attitudes to the military. It was a grand plea not to shoot the messenger, whatever one’s attitude to war, painting a very human portrait of those who fight on our behalf.

A vigorous sense of theatricality was also to be found in “Particularly in the Heartland,” by the young New York company TEAM. Although the show didn’t quite come to the point, its allusions to “The Wizard of Oz,” 9/11 and the Rapture made it clear it was trying to make sense of the apple-pie values of the U.S. in a world of political upheaval and religious retreat.

Devised by helmer Rachel Chavkin with six actors, it evoked a crazy Kansas world populated by three abandoned children, the ghost of Robert F. Kennedy, a pregnant alien and the survivor of an airplane crash. Somewhere in this chaotic yet entertaining vision lay an awareness of America’snewfound uncertainty in the global arena.

U.S. and U.K. foreign policy was given a cool-headed analysis in “What I Heard About Iraq,” one of a dozen or so verbatim theater productions at the Fringe. Based on an article in the London Review of Books by Eliot Weinberg and compellingly performed by a company of British and American actors under helmer Hannah Eidinow, it was a compilation of statements made by Western politicians. Lies, denials, about-turns and insensitive remarks were laid bare, exposing the mechanisms of power to chilling effect.

Elsewhere, the human face of conflict found shape in a number of shows: one man against genocide in “Goodness,” by Canada’s Volcano (which comes to Gotham next year); one woman against a Ugandan warlord in Jane Bussmann’s “Bussmann’s Holiday”; and one woman living in a war zone in “Girl Blog From Iraq,” by Six Figures Theater and Barrow Street Prods.

Most successful of this bunch was the celebrated Royal Court monologue “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” the first-person story of an American peace campaigner killed by an Israeli bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home. New to the role for the Edinburgh run (Megan Dodds played the part in London and will star in the upcoming Off Broadway run), Josephine Taylor did an exemplary and heartbreaking job at capturing Corrie’s youthful cocktail of idealism and political passion, demanding that we, like her, should get involved in the issues that matter to us.

In a festival that dealt with prostitution, sex trafficking, civil war in Sri Lanka, pollution and Eastern European emigration, there’s plenty of indication that theatermakers are doing exactly that.

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