At a time when a pair of nail clippers on a short-haul flight can set alarm bells ringing, it will be interesting to see if Edinburgh Intl. Airport remains the only such venue with the boldness of vision to host Grid Iron’s remarkable “Roam.” Performed as the last airplanes of the evening are arriving on the runway, lead writer-director Ben Harrison’s site-specific show takes over four airport check-in desks, several TV monitors, a baggage carousel and a section of the lounge to create a funny and polemical impressionistic collage of a population taking to the skies.
Even with the audience dutifully clutching their passports, one can only imagine how Grid Iron persuaded the security-conscious authorities to let the company perform the play in the airport.
“Roam” couldn’t even be called a safe piece of theater. Harrison’s multinational cast has much fun satirizing the sexual fantasies of businessmen, the raucous behavior of budget holiday-makers and the choreographed routines of the air crew. But the work doesn’t shy away from the contentious questions posed by the international terrorists and political refugees of the post-9/11 world.
Indeed, Harrison’s mission is to give his audience a visceral sense of the degradation suffered by many of the world’s citizens, particularly those from the Middle East, as they attempt to negotiate their way through passport control.
Half an hour before the performance proper begins, the aud boards a bus in the city center where a young woman standing by a box of confiscated knives holds up a tomato and asks us to identify it.
We laugh, of course, but she’s making an important satirical point about the U.K. government’s citizenship test, which requires foreigners who want to become British to answer questions about the country’s society, history and culture.
Later in the perf, when we’re in the airport itself, two immigration officers (standing next to a sign requesting that all beards should be removed) quiz a Palestinian traveler who claims to be Scottish on the exact nature of his national identity. The tone is still funny, but the implication that a nation can be defined by a set of predetermined cultural reference points is seriously intended.
More bleak is the storyline that develops when we arrive at the check-in desks — real passengers milling in the background — in which the TV monitors announce that a civil war has prompted an exodus from Scotland to the safe havens of Sarajevo, Beirut and Kigali. The tables have been turned and, as the desperate refugees arrive, separated from their loved ones and strapped for cash, we see the casual corruption and intimidation of a power-crazed official exploiting them in their hour of need.
When the audience is made to line up — half in the “us” line, half in the “them” line — we get a twinge of that same feeling of powerlessness.
Harrison, who in the past has staged works in a playground, a haunted cellar, a department store and a cancer hospital, is not using Edinburgh Intl. Airport simply for novelty value. The setting is thrillingly unusual, to be sure, but just as important is its relevance to the helmer’s theme. Airports and airplanes, he seems to say, are the sites of a new world order where national borders and cultural divisions no longer count for anything.
The momentum of the earlier scenes, with their cheeky energy and bright visual imagination, starts to wear off as the production nears the end; it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter. (The play itself runs 90 minutes, with an additional hour for audience transportation.) But for its vivid sense of detail — from the feathers on the bus seat to the wayward children scampering around the terminal — and for its rich blend of humor, politics and theatrical wit, “Roam” deserves to take flight at airports across the globe.