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Thursday, 22 August 2013 00:00

Why we're the way we are

by Gordon Parsons

As usual Edinburgh's Traverse, the city's home for new drama and currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, provides the cream of fringe theatre. Cadre (below) looks back to South Africa's savage history of apartheid for, as writer, director and actor Omphile Molusi recognises, countries and people "are what they are because of their history."

In a festival dominated by technical effects this production relies triumphantly on the skill of its three-actor cast and subtle lighting of a simple blanket-hung set. But its principal impact is the power of its message.

Covering the period from 1965 to the present, this love story is set within the wider struggle against oppression.

The lives of Gregory, played by Molusi, with a father determined his son should not follow his older brother fighting with the resistance and Sasa, played by Lillian Tshabalala, are doomed by a cruel system. Gregory's world is one of confusion, anger and agonising compromise as he is forced to choose between betraying his comrades and seeing Sasa murdered.

Molusi's play acknowledges that apartheid may have been defeated but the pain is lasting and the essential struggle for freedom continues. And it asks: Where is freedom without love?

History also leaves its scars in Dublin's Abbey Theatre production of Quietly. Owen McCaffery's play is one of almost unbearable tension as two 56-year-old men confront one another and their shared history at a pre-arranged meeting in a Belfast Catholic pub, the scene of a UVF bombing in 1974.

Patrick O'Kane's solitary hard man Jimmy, whose father was one of the victims, and Declan Conlon's muted Ian, (above right) who was the youth who threw the bomb, literally compel the audience to listen as they relive the experience that has disfigured their lives respectively with hatred and guilt.

"Only the dead can be forgiven," wrote WB Yeats, and McCaffery does not pretend that explanations and words can bring reconciliation.

But we are left knowing that something important has happened to ease the pain - the sharing of it.

Using an expressionist cabaret style, Theatre O open their version of The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel of mutual anarchist and state corruption, with a music hall rendering of We Don't Want To Set The World On Fire.

In the present hyped fear of terrorism, it is both disconcerting and intriguing to find the subject presented with a comic focus, making its own commentary on a world of inadequate anarchists and corrupt policemen.

When police informer and anarchist gang infiltrator Adolf Verloc is ordered to commit some public atrocity by his other paymasters, the Russian embassy, his attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory results in the death of his stoic wife Winnie's beloved simple brother. Her revenge is terrible.

The sombre conclusion to an entertaining show disappointingly fails to point a relevance to the manipulation of our current scene.

We all know about drones - or do we? George Brant's Grounded takes us into unknown territory, the detailed experience of the office workers who control these automatic killers thousands of miles from their targets.

Now in her court martial cell an unnamed ex-fighter pilot, redeployed after pregnancy to the deskforce and a 12-hour day staring at a screen, searches with her distant eye in the sky over the Afghan desert for "the enemy." She begins understandably to lose contact with reality. When her jubilation at yet another kill turns to horror as she realises the next target will include a child like her own daughter she finally breaks, with the inevitable militaristic consequences.

This blistering solo performance by Lucy Ellinson (below left) brings home the obscenity of this latest Frankenstein monster of modern war gaming.

Finally, away from the Traverse, Nirbhaya - Fearless - at the Assembly Rooms is based on the grotesque gang rape and mutilation of the young Indian student on a Delhi bus last year. In it six young Indian women tell of their own experiences of sexual and physical abuse. These are true accounts, not the words of actors playing roles.

The event sparked an eruption of angry protest by women in India and in much of the world. Like so much of our 24-hour news culture, its currency quickly faded to be replaced by the next newsworthy sensation.

Yael Farber's treatment, climaxing with a scene depicting the unspeakable attack itself, is followed by a strangely beautiful ritualised funeral, itself a statement of the resilience and defiance of women to assert their human independence in a male-dominated world. Theatre at its best can only reach minute audiences but everyone who sees Nirbhaya will carry the seed of change.

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