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Sound of voices caught in the crossfire

There may have been a proliferation of Iraq War plays over recent years, but there are few likely to be more affecting than Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Palace Of The End (*****).

A trio of monologues developed with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and directed here by Greg Hersov, they give voice to those caught in the crossfire and either vilified, drowned out or else not even heard in the first place.

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The first piece, My Pyramids, was originally seen at The Traverse as a standalone affair, and puts words into the mouth of Lynndie England, the American soldier who became famous after she appeared in photographs smiling with thumbs aloft as naked Iraqi men were tortured.

Harrowdown Hill has the audience bear witness to the final moments of David Kelly, the scientist who outed himself as the BBC mole who declared Iraq’s much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction a fiction.

It is the third piece, Instruments of Learning, in which a brutalised Iraqi mother becomes the conscience, not just of the play, but of her entire nation, that is the most distressing and most powerful part of the trilogy.

By laying bare Lynndie England’s white trash background, My Pyramids pricks the liberal conscience with a litany of bullying and peer group pressure that goes some way to explaining England’s role in what she calls “America’s secret”. Institutionalised violence, it seems, only begets more of the same.

In Harrowdown Hill, Kelly is an angrier, more articulate figure than the nervous ditherer portrayed by the media. It is Nehrjas, the unknown Iraqi woman in Instruments of Learning, who finally brings home the full frightening consequences of war, as, in the end, all three are revealed as victims.

Thompson’s writing is impassioned and poetic in Hersov’s clear, elegant production, which is blessed with an astonishing set of performances from Kellie Bright as Lynndie and Robert Demeger as David. Eve Polycarpou, meanwhile, invests Nehrjas with a dignity and grace world leaders should be forced to pay homage to.

After such a powerfully emotive production, anything else can’t help but look trivial. It’s fortunate, then, that Che Walker and Arthur Darville’s north London-set soul musical, Been So Long (****), is so whip-smart slick in its delivery. Playwright/director Walker and composer Darville set their look at urban romance in a bright and once brash style bar that’s now on its last legs, with only lovelorn bar-man Barney tending to his last loyal customers. Into this steps stressed out scally Gil, good-time girls Yvonne and Simone and muscle-bound ladies man Raymond, who’s just out of prison and is making up for lost time.

This is throwaway sketchbook stuff, laced through with a sly wit married to its inherent sex-starved lewdness. Characterisations are winningly broad, with all of the cast in terrific voice. It’s Harry Hepple’s Gil who all but steals the comic scenes, especially while singing a love song as he wields a machete above Raymond’s head in this simple but honest feel-good affair.

Blood ties count in Orphans (****), Dennis Kelly’s new play, co-produced by The Traverse with Birmingham Rep in association with Paines Plough. The latter company’s outgoing artistic director Roxana Silbert directs this tale of what the long-term effects of being orphaned at an early age has had on a brother and sister. Helen’s doing alright for herself, and has settled down with husband Danny and their seven-year-old son. Their house may be in a rough part of town, but it’s home. When Helen’s brother Liam turns up at their door covered in blood, the events his arrival set in motion ensure none of their lives will ever be the same again.

There are a myriad of things going on in Kelly’s deceptively domestic looking work. Old codes of looking after one’s own and protecting one’s territory are taken to near vigilante-like extremes. Liam and Helen are equally damaged, but where she embraces the seeming certainties of domestic bliss, he lashes out against it.

Silbert draws out some of the play’s oddness by opting for a slightly arch acting style that accentuates an underlying black humour in Kelly’s text. If Joe Armstrong’s Liam, Claire-Louise Cordwell’s Helen and Jonathan McGuinness as Danny initially spar like they’re on EastEnders, they soon settle into a quieter, more discomforting tone.

The most shocking incident in the play comes in its final twist. Just as Helen is jolted into a renewed faith in her own family unit, Danny’s exposure to life’s cruelties beyond it harden him. It’s a brutal indictment of how the Thatcherite cult of individualism has sullied us all. (NC)

Palace of the End, Been So Long and Orphans all at The Traverse Theatre until August 30, various times.

 

Verbatim theatre is really in fashion at the moment, according to Libby Penn, when she reveals a little sheepishly one of the reasons why she chose to tell the story of a former child soldier on stage with The Nine Lives of Bua Lydia (HHH).

Or rather, an actress playing Libby Penn says this -- the director has incorporated her own thoughts about the creative process into the production, at times to distracting effect. She points out that the title itself betrays the manipulation involved in breaking down a life story into bite-sized narrative chunks, but fails to mention a bigger problem: 27-year-old Bua Lydia was filmed for a documentary, an extract of which is featured here.

While she tells an inspiring tale of survival after years of horrendous abuse at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda (sensitively told here by actress Lara Rossi), the audience is given no sense of the brainwashing that is used to turn young innocents into ruthless killers. This is hardly surprising, given that she has waived her anonymity.

Fashionable or not, a verbatim show would be a very effective way to tell the stories of these children, but only if their identities were protected in the process.

The accounts presented in Words of Honour: The Mafia Exposed (HH) were obtained by Italian investigative journalist Attilio Bolzoni, on whose book this show by Jermyn Street

Theatre is based. The promise of first-hand testimony from “the most notorious and ruthless mafia bosses” will surely attract anyone with an interest in the subject, but both the presentation and content of this show fall well below the standard one expects from Assembly.

Setting aside the bafflingly poor animated backdrop and Marco Gambino’s caricature-heavy performance, there are few genuinely interesting or surprising insights into the inner workings of the criminal organisation. Instead we’re offered such gems of wisdom as, “Whoever betrays the Cosa Nostra will burn,” accompanied by exaggerated gestures and computer-generated flames. A disappointment.

Similarly fragmented but far better executed is King of the Gypsies (HHH), in which Paul McCleary plays everyone from the affable Englishman of the title to an Italian father, a gypsy schoolboy and an early traveller leaving India after the enslavement of his family. The words of many others also feature in the form of taped comments, many of which betray mistrust of gypsy neighbours or an objection to their lifestyle, and while the piece is clearly intended as a call for tolerance it doesn’t shy away from admitting that them-and-us attitudes cut both ways.

Ultimately, however, the show suffers from trying to cover too much ground, and the result has a theatre-in-education feel.

A segment inspired by the shocking images of two Roma girls lying dead on an Italian beach while those around them carry on sunbathing evokes the horror and indignity of the scene, but it would have been necessary to devote the full hour to this single event if a proper exploration of its context was to be attempted. (SC)

The Nine Lives of Bua Lydia is on at 1.25pm at Underbelly until August 30, Words of Honour is on at 4.10pm at Assembly Hall until August 30, and King of the

Gypsies is on at Pleasance at 3.15pm until August 31.

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