In the weeks ahead at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it's hard to imagine finding a play more topical or more incendiary than Henry Adam's "Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5," the first major opening of the fest. Adam dares to look into the ugly heart of global politics in this play set in a bombed-out apartment in occupied territory.
In the weeks ahead at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s hard to imagine finding a play more topical or more incendiary than Henry Adam’s “Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5,” the first major opening of the fest. Adam dares to look into the ugly heart of global politics in this play set in a bombed-out apartment in occupied territory.Adam’s thesis is that the conflict in the Middle East — and, by extension, many of the world’s key trouble spots — is fueled by an unholy alliance between capitalism and fundamentalist religion. Into the dust and debris of Soutra Gilmour’s bare-bones set, he brings a Texas oil magnate, friend of President Bush and born-again Christian, and the American widow of a radical rabbi gunned down on the streets of Gotham. Both are on a package holiday to Jerusalem, but they have been taken into the protection of three Israeli soldiers after their tourist group launched an unprovoked attack on the local Arab population. Believing that we are “in the time of the messiah,” the apocalyptic period before the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, the Texan and his 10,000-strong church have been giving financial support to the rabbi’s wife in the hope that the Jews will build a temple to replace the El-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Motivated by a literal belief in biblical prophesy and an endless thirst for new sources of oil, the Texan is happy to foment civil unrest if it brings him closer to Judgment Day. He’s played as a creepy practitioner of tough love by Lewis Howden. For her part, the rabbi’s wife, in a frighteningly vitriolic performance by Susan Vidler, recognizes it’s U.S. cash that keeps the Israeli army in weapons. Despite her beliefs, it suits her to keep in with the Christians. Adam’s more subtle point is that the ordinary Israeli soldiers are at the mercy of these outside vested interests. Although they’re technically on the same side, the soldiers realize during the course of a night under siege that their American guests are fomenting the conflict that’s leaving them emotionally wrecked. “This isn’t a war,” yells the rabbi’s wife, as the bombs rain down and the snipers fire, prompting the soldiers to turn in anger on the very people they’ve been commissioned to protect. The play’s politics are contentious, but it feels like Adam is peeling back a septic wound and forcing us to examine the puss: There’s something visceral and all too believable in the picture it paints. From a dramatic point of view, it’s hard not to let characters as grotesque as the Texan and the rabbi’s wife unbalance the argument, but the unsentimental language and tough perfs just about rescue the play from being crudely polemical. The pace of the character-driven plot wavers in Philip Howard’s production, which could be more raw and less polite still. However, for the most part it’s a superbly acted vision of life during wartime in which the bigger global picture is reflected in microcosm. No doubt Adam will be accused of simplification and of encouraging conspiracy theories, but he should be applauded for creating a knotty drama out of an even knottier situation.