Star rating: Expensive Shit ****
Venue: Traverse Theatre
Star rating: The Interference ****
Venue: C Chambers Street (Venue 34)
Star rating: My Eyes Went Dark ****
Venue: Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Star rating: Diary Of A Madman ***
Venue: Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
In a nightclub toilet somewhere in the UK, an African woman called Tolu waits for her next customers. She is paid nothing for her work as a toilet attendant; her income depends on tips, and whatever she can earn by selling small essentials like lipstick and tissues. And then there is the pressure from the boss to provide another special service; for in this toilet, in a reference to a recent real-life case in Scotland, there are male watchers on the other sides of the mirrors, paying a premium price to leer at women as they fix their make-up, or chance – if Tolu can arrange it – to leave a cubicle door open.
Yet Tolu is used to dealing with situations in which women are forced, against their will, to make themselves available to men; because in Adura Onashile’s new show for the Traverse and Scottish Theatre Producers – sometimes chaotic, always electrifying – the action alternates between Tolu’s subdued and humiliating present life in the UK, and her past as a young woman growing up in Kalakuta, the Nigerian “republic” of freedom for some, and rank sexual exploitation for others, set up by the legendary singer and campaigner Fela Kuti. Together with her three friends, she yearns to dance on stage, to be chosen, to sing with the band; but two or three decades on, these same actors have become her nightclub customers, dancing and boozing their way through a classic British weekend night out, and also vulnerable to frightening exploitation, until the moment when Tolu tells the truth about the mirrors, and the women seize control of their own images, in a breathtaking theatrical glimpse of the truth that knowledge is power.
Nothing about this brave first multi-character play by Onashile is perfect, except its raging female energy; the Nigerian back-story to Tolu’s life is never explained, and the alternations between Nigeria and Britain are poorly signalled. At the core of this play, though, there is an important truth, told with formidable force through dance, music, and fast-moving dialogue in street English and raw, brilliant Nigerian patois; and Sabina Cameron, Teri Ann Bobb Baxter, Jamie Marie Leary and Diana Yekinni give four unforgettable performances, in a play for today that links two very different cultures with a single, patriarchal badge of shame.
There’s a similar anger on stage in The Interference, written by Scottish playwright Linda Radley for the annual Pepperdine Scotland project, involving US students on a summer residency. Here, though, the story – involving an incident of “date rape” by a popular football star on a US university campus – takes a sharply-shaped documentary-style approach to the material, with an ensemble of thirteen young actors offering a mix of narrative, monologue and dialogue, as they conjure up the story of the young woman student who decides not to stay silent, after being raped at a campus party.
Many of the ideas raised in The Interference are familiar from real-life campaigns against “rape culture”; the tendency to blame, doubt and question the victim rather than the perpetrator, the focus on the potential damage to his prospects rather than hers, the internet bullying suffered both by the victim and by the female journalist who takes up her cause.
Radley’s text is formidable, though, both in its powerful narrative structure, and in its ear for the chilling parallels between the brutal, aggressive language of the sports field, and the frightening attitudes to women that often go along with it; and Cathy Thomas-Grant’s young company do it full justice, in a show that’s brisk, gripping, fiercely intelligent, and tightly focused on one of the major recurring themes of this year’s Fringe.
And if shows like Expensive Shit and The Interference offer a passionate critique of patriarchal attitudes, then this year’s Traverse programme also offers two powerful portraits of fathers struggling to respond to changed times. In Matthew Wilkinson’s intense and powerful two-hander My Eyes Went Dark – first seen in London last year – Cal MacAninch delivers a remarkable, contained yet intense performance as Nikolai Koslov, a successful architect from the Russian republic of Ossetia who finds himself plunged into a world of primal emotion when his wife and children die in a plane crash, following an air traffic control error. As time passes, his brutal act of revenge makes him a hero back home in Ossetia, where a macho code of vengeance still carries more weight than Nikolai will admit; but even as his career soars again, a chorus of female characters – all played with terrific focus and flexibility by Thusitha Jayasundera – are circling around him demanding a different response: the forgiveness, the empathy, the basic humanity, that will truly begin to heal his wounds.
And in the Gate production of Al Smith’s Diary Of A Madman – inspired by the Gogol story, but set in contemporary Scotland – Liam Brennan is both brilliant and heartbreaking as Pop Sheeran, a middle-aged husband and father who comes from a long line of Forth Bridge painters, and is now profoundly threatened both by his own inner demons, and by technological change that could mean the end of the perpetual painting of the bridge.
Smith’s script takes an unfortunate wrong turning when it tries to make an ill-informed and tendentious link between Pop’s madness and current Scottish politics; Pop dons a tartan plaid outfit, paints himself red, declares himself to be “Braveheart”, and starts to express a visceral hatred for his young English student assistant, who is romancing his daughter. But if the play’s approach to Scottish politics, exposed in the final scenes, is as patronising and myth-making as the last act of Macbeth – England the land of reason and modernity, Scotland a place haunted by strange atavistic demons – its first half is an impressive piece of writing, featuring not only a powerful development of Pop Sheeran’s own character, but some of the finest stage banter the Traverse has seen in years, between Louise McMenemy as Pop’s lovely daughter Sophie, and an unstoppable Lois Chimimba as her best mate, Mel, a representative of the new Scotland who takes no nonsense from anyone, least of all a posh English student, or an ageing Scotsman who thinks he’s become Mel Gibson.
Expensive Shit until 28 August; The Interference until 16 August; My Eyes Went Dark and Diary of A Madman until 28 August