Theatre review: The Empire Builders

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How many places are there where stability feels provisional? How many people who know danger could be only round the corner?

Star rating: ****

Venue: Institut français d’Ecosse (Venue 134)

Think of Turkey, where last month’s failed military coup has been countered by the sacking of 5,000 state employees and 77,000 suspensions.

Directly affected were some of the actors of Istanbul’s Theatre Hayal Perdesi who are also members of the Turkish State Theatres and count as government employees. Because of President Erdogan’s crackdown, they almost didn’t get to perform at the Fringe.

In those circumstances, you can only imagine that the symbolism of Boris Vian’s piece of post-war absurdism carries extra weight for them. Written in 1952 and first staged in 1959, The Empire Builders shows a family escaping an unidentified threat. Every time they hear the same ominous noise, they take flight, relocating to a higher floor in their apartment block.

Much to the outrage of daughter Zenobia (a spirited Tuba Karabey), her parents lose all memory of their previous apartments. It’s not simply that they have no words to describe the threat, it’s that they refuse to acknowledge its existence.

Such denial of reality takes a psychological toll. In Aleksandar Popovski’s strongly acted production, the conversation is forever exploding into peaks of panic, exposing the stress beneath the placid domestic surface. That stress takes physical form in the irrational violence they mete out to Selin Iscan’s Sümürz, less a character than a human punchbag forced to bear their burden.

It remains a strange, puzzling play but, in an era when power must be held to account more than ever, it’s a nightmarish warning against political complacency.

Until 21 August. Today 6:30pm.

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