This small room at Edinburgh College of Art would not normally seem claustrophobic. But so convincing is this intense, disturbing play about confinement that emerging from it really feels like coming up for air.
Star rating: * * * *
It begins with a woman in traditional Chinese dress calmly telling us that she, and her sister-wives of the Emperor, have been led inside his elaborate tomb to watch him die, along with the architects and artists who created it and his terracotta soldiers. And there is no way out. Ever.
More light is the last thing the Emperor calls for; it is also her name. When the other wives join her, they are at first carefully choreographed to move and speak in unison. As the play progresses, this falls apart and their characters emerge. To survive, these delicate women, who have been pretty slaves, given only the finest food and groomed only to please their master, must do terrible things, make terrible choices.
Each becomes an emperor – or rather, he becomes part of them, literally – but they also discover themselves and create, for the first time, their own world, discovering what they might be capable of. In a tomb, they are most alive. But the play raises interesting questions: do their choices, or the art they make, mean anything if they are doomed to crumble into dust in the tomb, to disappear among the grandiose statement made by men?
The combination of movement, dialogue and poetry in Bryony Lavery’s 1997 play are beautifully performed by the cast, who capture the emotion of the terrifying situation. The projected “chapter headings” are a distraction and the opening monologue too long, while the original production’s very visual ending has unfortunately been left out, perhaps for practical reasons. But those are small quibbles with an extraordinary theatrical experience that draws you into its strange world.
Until 27 August. Today, 7:15pm.