Voices/Thunderstruck/Owen O'Neill:
It Was Henry Fonda's Fault/The Reader
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2000

Muted cocktail jazz tinkles around the Traverse Two stage (venue 15), which is dominated by a dinner table in some disarray. Tentatively, a bespectacled man enters, takes a seat at the end of the table and begins, stammeringly, apologetically, to discourse on the value of believing in nothing, of "social nothingness". Jeroen Willems, in his solo piece Voices presented by Theatregroep Hollandia, is in fact reciting the words of Italian cinematic iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini. After ten minutes or so, he switches chairs, rearranges his clothing and becomes a self-satisfied plutocrat, then a wheedling, sneering figure, and so on. The most startling physical transformation is into a drag queen telling a parable of an unusual Faustian pact. Finally, we leave Pasolini for an urbane but loathsomely self-serving speech on the social "obligations" of major companies, taken in fact from a speech by the former chief of Shell. Political, philosophical and above all moral viewpoints are discreetly abraded against one another in Willems' compelling performance.

Also at the Traverse, Canada's One Yellow Rabbit company return with a bizarre, convolutedly introspective piece by Daniel Danis, Thunderstruck, subtitled The Song Of The Say-Sayer, in which three brothers, psychically welded together by a thunderstorm which orphaned them many years earlier, take it upon themselves to tend to their near-comatose sister, but tensions both internal and external threaten to cleave the family asunder. The performances are compelling and concentrated; at one point the brothers pass the time waiting for Naomi's return with a tightly choreographed routine of fidgeting, then run the same moves in reverse. However, if Danis has a specific message or subtext, it is largely passed by in a mist of the unspecifically evocative. There is no real dramatic arc to the proceedings, just a big beginning, a big ending and some events in between. The Say-Sayer itself a miniature model of the Lastings' house which the brothers seem to believe has the power to store words and emotions is an intriguing symbol, but it never quite becomes clear of what.

A few years ago Owen O'Neill visited the Traverse with Off My Face, a semi-autobiographical show about his alcoholism and how he confronted it. Now It Was Henry Fonda's Fault is a kind of sequel to that show, about his obsession since childhood with Hollywood thanks to an ageing and probably mendacious cinema projectionist. If his appearance in the film Michael Collins was a modest disaster, his trip to Los Angeles with the alcoholism show was an unparalleled catastrophe. O'Neill's career as a comedian stands him in good stead here: he has an engaging personality, and neither glosses over nor grossly exaggerates his various humiliations or his incredulous observations about life in La La Land. He is more ill-at-ease with ideas of theatricality, tending to pepper scene changes with blackouts and musical cues when he undoubtedly could just glide smoothly into the next section. But his humour is both sharp and relaxed, and his vein of sentiment seldom veers into outright sentimentality. To call his show endearing is emphatically not to damn it with faint praise.

Whilst plays such as Decky Does A Bronco (Scotland Yard Playground, George V Park; venue 172) and The Second Amendment Club (C Underbelly; venue 61) acknowledge the existence of moral complexities in their respective areas, Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader adapted for the stage by Chris Dolan (Scotsman Assembly; venue 3), and shortly to be filmed by Anthony Minghella holds such an awkward gaze unflinchingly, making clear that sometimes the only choice is between different culpabilities.

In the 1950s fifteen-year-old schoolboy Michael is befriended then seduced by 36-year-old tram conductress Hanna Schmitz. Several years after she vanished from his life, Michael by now a radical law student encounters her again, on trial as having been an SS guard in a concentration camp, and is torn between his desire to see such wickedness punished and the knowledge that, although undoubtedly guilty, she cannot be guilty as charged. Decades later, as Hanna's release looms, Michael begins to correspond with her.

Three different Michaels onstage enact the various aspects of the character's relationship with Hanna, and debate among themselves matters of guilt, forgiveness, collaboration and sharing moral responsibility. A triptych of video screens behind the otherwise sparse stage provide changing backdrops and additional testimony. Leslie Finlay's production for Borderline Theatre Company (touring until October 7) is taut, demanding and vital.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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