Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Exodus | Silkworm | Bogeyman | The Last Return
When it comes to tackling serious political issues on stage, farce, absurdity and abstraction remain powerful tools, finds Joyce McMillan
Traverse Theatre, until 28 August
On Dover Beach, a British Asian politician stands with her feet in the water, in a photo-shoot supposed to emphasise her uniquely tough stance on the “invasion” of migrants reaching the UK in small boats.
This is the key image at the heart of of Uma Nada-Rajah’s brand-new political farce Exodus, presented at the Traverse by the National Theatre Scotland; and in a world in turmoil – where no issue rouses stronger emotions than the migration of millions, fleeing from war, poverty and climate change – this 80-minute play seems so completely and perfectly of the moment that it might have been written this week, at the height of the current Tory Party leadership battle.
The story revolves around Home Secretary Asiya Rao, a Priti Patel-like figure played with panache by Aryana Ramkhalawon; and with the Prime Minister’s career “on its last legs”, she and her ruthless media advisor Phoebe – a vicious and commanding Sophie Steer – are determined to burnish her image as the charismatic and ruthless far-right leader of her party’s dreams.The wheels begin to come off, though, when a live refugee baby bobs up in the waves at the Home Secretary’s feet; and from that moment on, it’s all The Thick Of It meets a Carry On film, as the train journey back to London – supposed to involve a flattering interview between Asiya and ambitious young Scottish journalist Tobi, played to perfection by Anna Russell Martin – collapses into a chaos of baby poo, bleeding nipples and attempted murder, also involving a beautiful and commanding Habiba Saleh as the asylum-seeker actress hired to play Asiya’s mother for interview purposes.It’s a high-risk decision, of course, to write an all-female farce about the current mayhem at the top of British politics; and I suppose some may find Nada-Rajah’s in-your-face slapstick satire offensive, on such a serious subject. With the help of some superb fictional and real-life video material, though – and a hugely stylish and fast-moving production by Debbie Hannan – Nada-Rajah makes it work; and in a programme note, she and Hannan rightly quote the great Italian radical satirist Dario Fo, on the necessity for farce, absurdism, and defiant laughter, in dire political times.
Silkworm ****Assembly Roxy, until 29 AugustBritain’s asylum system, and its absurd inhumanities, also play a key role in Silkworm, a new play at Assembly Roxy by Glasgow-based playwright Vlad Butucea co-produced by Pearlfisher and the Byre Theatre, and supported by an Assembly Festival ART Award. In a Glasgow tower-block flat, two Nigerian women wait for a Home Office decision on whether they will be allowed to stay in Britain. They are in love, and hope that their status as a gay couple will help them avoid being forced to return to a fiercely homophobic society at home; but their love is more shy and tentative than flamboyant, and the official asylum process – with its endless required revisiting of past trauma – is almost impossible to bear.On a simple tower-block kitchen set by Jen McGinley, Ewa Dina and Antonia Layiwola act out this archetypal 21st century story with infinite pain and tenderness; in a slow-moving but intense production by Mojisola Elufowoju that perfectly evokes the horror of a world in which the victims of colonialism still have to beg at the gates of an openly racist British immigration system, and a human life has to be reframed as a convincing performance, in order to have a chance of continuing in freedom.
Pleasance Dome, until 29 AugustThe legacy of colonialism is also the subject of Lagahoo Theatre’s explosive new show Bogeyman, playing at the Pleasance Dome with the support of the Pleasance Futures programme. The show’s subject is the history of Haiti, its 1791 revolution against French colonial rule, and the extent to which the island and its culture, following its successful rebellion against white colonial power and slavery, has become synonymous in western culture with every kind of “Voodoo”, devilry, and nightmares of the undead.Emily Aboud’s 70-minute play sometimes seems torn between the demands of this thesis about the impact of Haiti on western culture, and a much more urgent drama about four young black Londoners today, as they become fully aware of the bloody history of the civilisation and economy that built the city they live in, now careering towards a literal and terrifying meltdown.Aboud’s production, though, transforms this complex narrative into a superb and vibrant piece of movement theatre for our time, beautifully delivered by Deshaye Gayle, Hosanna Johnson, Nicholas Marrast-Lewis and Jacoba Williams, and charged with the knowledge that those who have created and benefited most from our current economic system now have every reason to be very afraid indeed.
The Last Return ****
Traverse Theatre, until 28
Finally, there’s a much more abstract and stylised approach to issues of invasion, territory, expropriation and rebellion in Sonya Kelly’s gorgeously stylish new 90-minute play for Druid Theatre, which arrives at the Traverse fresh from the Galway Festival. Set in the queue for returned tickets at a posh European opera house, The Last Return is in some ways fairly predictable thin-veneer-of-civilisation stuff, speculating on how easily even the quest for solace (or status) through art can escalate towards aggression and violenceIn Sarah Joyce’s elegant and powerful production, though, it’s all so beautifully delivered, by a terrific seven-strong cast led by Fiona Bell as an aggressive ticket-seeker, and Anna Healy as a magnificent ticket lady, that the whole farce and tragedy becomes irresistible; and if the play’s final scene seems like something from a dream - well, it’s clear that realism is running out of options, when it comes to describing the way we live now.