Truth in Translation
ASSEMBLY @ ASSEMBLY HALL (VENUE 35)
BOMBERS' ROW ***
ASSEMBLY @ HILL STREET (VENUE 41)
TRAVERSE THEATRE (VENUE 15)
THE idea of forgiveness stalks this year's Fringe like a ghost - the word is everywhere, but no-one seems sure whether the thing itself really exists. It shimmers most powerfully in Tam Dean Burn and Luke Sutherland's beautiful NTS Workshop show Venus as a Boy, already seen this summer in Orkney where its story begins, but now thrilling Festival audiences at the Traverse.
Elsewhere, though, the feelings of rage, revenge and tribal fury aroused by violence and nurtured by oppression seem on the brink of triumphing over any idea of forgiveness or redemption; which is why Truth in Translation, brought to the Assembly Hall by the Colonnades Theatre Lab and Market Theatre of South Africa, is perhaps one of the most significant shows in Edinburgh this year.
Set during the 1990s, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding over South Africa's unique Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to examine the crimes of the apartheid era, Truth in Translation was first seen in Rwanda last year, and is a free-flowing play with songs, conceived and directed by Michael Lessac with help from the entire company.
It focuses on the remarkable team of translators who accompanied the TRC around the country, translating into and out of South Africa's dozen languages; and as the Commission's work unfolds, the translators - themselves drawn from a rainbow of different ethnic groups and backgrounds - struggle to cope with the horrific stories of murder, torture and massacre they hear, and with the rage and grief these stories provoke, both against themselves, and against their traditional enemies.
Truth in Translation is not a show that wastes time making things simple for those who know little about South African history; it plunges straight into the heart of the story, and begins - with a deceptive, episodic casualness - to sketch the characters of the eight translators, plus the television reporter Marcel, the TRC "comforter" Nobuhle and the racist Afrikaner barman Rudi, who accompany them on the road.
What's remarkable about the play, though, is how, around the backbone of its music, it gradually builds a compelling narrative and a completely convincing set of characters, while avoiding the temptation to tidy up the issues for dramatic presentation.
The final impression - which matters much more than the historical detail - is of one hell of a moral and ethical mess, in which language itself becomes a weapon or a smokescreen, every soul is divided between vengeance and forgiveness, and terrifying earthquakes of buried rage and pain can break out at any time; but also of a nation determined to find a way of moving on, and committed to the idea that they must do so together.
"If you think I don't love my country, you don't know your country," roars the old Afrikaner Rudi, in farewell; and the fabulous Thembi Mtshali-Jones, as Nobuhle, leads the cast in a final song of mourning and hope, at the end of a show courageously committed to showing humanity exactly as it is, profoundly flawed and often breathtakingly brutal, but not entirely lost.
There's much less forgiveness around in Paul Allman's Bombers' Row, the latest Fringe show from the award-winning 78th Street Theatre Lab of New York. In a combination of serious political drama and dream-like black comedy, the play imagines a situation in which three terrorist bombers - the Unabomber, the 1993 World Trade bomber Ramzi Yousef, and the Oklahoma bomber, Tim McVeigh - are held in adjacent cages in America's maximum security prison, and allowed to meet and talk for an hour a day.
Wisecracking like a gang of New York street kids, the three tease one another about the various belief systems that led them to this place; while far away, in some unnamed city, rescue workers hunt for the latest victims beneath piles of rubble.
Directed with feeling by Eric Nightengale, Bombers' Row plays, at the moment, like a work in progress. At the core of this play, there's a brave and intelligent attempt to look squarely at the "reasons" that drive people to horrific violence against civilian targets; I'm not sure, though, that the narrative - with its shocking, vengeful sting in the tail - has yet found the right shape to support that exploration.
At the Traverse, meanwhile, the great Linda Marlowe - best known for her long theatrical partnership with Steven Berkoff - looks to the Old Testament in Believe for a cold-eyed, courageously pre-Christian look at the role of women in war, as prostitutes and traitors, widows, warriors and martyrs.
In a sense, the stories in Matthew Hurt's script complement one another less well than they should.
The design of the piece - black costume, dark stage, one chair - is so austere that the characters seem to come out of nowhere, without even a common location in some timeless war zone; and the attempts to update one or two of the narratives only add to that sense of confusion.
In the final piece, though, about Hannah the martyr, Marlowe achieves an absolutely memorable, deep stillness, in a heart-stopping monologue about the horrific torture inflicted as she and her seven sons face death for their faith.
It's a stillness that speaks of faith as a great calm, conquering and subsuming all the evil that humankind can do.
And on a Fringe full of anger against religious faith as a cause of unnecessary violence, it's an image worth pondering; much more sombre than the shimmering golden light of Venus as a Boy, but almost as persuasive.
• Truth in Translation until 27 August. Today at 2pm; Bombers' Row until 27 August. Today at 3.55pm; Believe until 26 August. Today at 2pm
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Monday 20 May 2013
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