Internal / The Red Room / Palace Of The End / Orphans / The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church

Traverse Theatre and offshoots, Edinburgh
August, 2009
*** / **** / *** / *** / ****

It is said of some theatre pieces that you get out of the experience of watching them as much as you put in, but never can that have been as true as it is of Internal. In it, members of the unorthodox Belgian company Ontroerend Goed (who have amassed an impressive reputation over the past two Fringes) pair off with audience members, one on one (the capacity for each 30-minute performance is five punters only), take us into darkened booths and attempt to forge an intimate bond with us speed-dating style. The ten of us then assemble together for a brief group therapy-ish session, after which intimate farewells are bidden. It implicitly muses on the illusory bond we may feel with characters in a more conventional drama, but as the performers work their agenda expertly, the sensation was intense of, in my case, both exhilaration and disquiet. I found that my conscious commitment to the form of the piece was sabotaged by my reflex reticence, and so my overall impression was uneven. The star rating I have given, then, is indicative only of my own experience: anyone else might score a one or a five depending on how they, er, score.

Internal is staged under the aegis of the Traverse Theatre in a nearby hotel. The rest of the venue’s initial batch of openings confirm that this is the most consistently solid Traverse programme for a few years now, although little in the main space matches the coruscating intensity of the likes of Sea Wall or Midsummer in its smaller second house. A qualified exception to this verdict is The Red Room, a collaboration between choreographer David Hughes and director Al Seed. Unless explicitly told, no-one watching this intense and complex dance version of Poe’s tale The Masque Of The Red Death would suspect that two of the six dancers had left due to personal misfortune scant days before the run began. It may look a little odd that Seed is now playing a female role, farthingale and all, but hardly out of character for a piece which revels in grotesquerie, and which to all appearances is still performed flawlessly.

“Grotesque” is not quite the word for Dennis Kelly’s writing: he specialises in unsettling events treated with a paradoxical combination of surreality and hyperreality. In Orphans, a quiet dinner at home between Danny and his wife Helen is interrupted by the sudden arrival of her brother Liam, covered in blood. His changing stories about the attack which put him in this condition, the consequences of the same, Helen and Danny’s marital uncertainties and her and Liam’s history as the orphans of the title intertwine in an ever-tightening noose around the necks of all three of them. At two hours including interval, the play feels protracted, especially in an Edinburgh context, but Roxana Silbert’s production is such that she leaves her post as artistic director of Paines Plough on a deservedly strong note.

Although Daniel Kitson performs the comedy which has principally made his reputation a mile or so away at the Stand club, his storytelling shows have become a Traverse fixture in recent years. The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church recounts his serendipitous discovery of tens of thousands of letters constituting a quarter-century of the correspondence of a man who set out to kill himself, then found himself obliged to keep replying to the various suicide notes he sent. The ornate set design of past Kitson shows is absent, but his delight in a fine curmudgeonly turn of phrase is present and correct.

Judith Thompson’s Palace Of The End rewrites her 2005 monologue My Pyramids, in which Private Lynndie England explains her experiences as a jailer in Abu Ghraib, and links it with two other Iraq War-related solo pieces: Harrowdown Hill, in which government scientist David Kelly justifies his speaking out about the government’s “dodgy dossier” and his in-progress suicide, and Instruments Of Yearning in which a Baghdad woman recounts her torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s brutal minions. In Greg Hersov’s production for Manchester Royal Exchange, it is a thoughtful trilogy but not, alas, a compelling one; it now feels a little out of time, a kind of theatrical coelacanth.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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