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Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Wrap #1

THE TIME OF OUR LIES: The Life and Times of Howard Zinn

A Russian stage director recently told me that taking to the streets in protest was futile in today’s world: “We cannot start a revolution that will serve the people until we find new ways to express what we have to say – and yet to do so with risk and without compromise.”

Bianca Bagatourian’s play The Time of Our Lies does exactly that. Based on Howard Zinn’s best-selling text A people’s History of the United States,this production relocates the epicentre of war from the purse-strings of the bulging American corporations to the people who must face the consequences of ‘not having asked questions’.

Directed by Josh Chambers, this remarkable production stands out because of the sheer brilliance of its actors, a magnificent soundscape that ebbs and flows and balanced lighting and projection that enhance the narrative.

Rap, spoken word poetry and a range of different forms of storytelling are ideal art forms for this unabashed examination of the USA’s involvement in war and its perverse love affair with weapons of mass destruction.

The audience are immersed in this very present world of strife and struggle – not only at a geopolitical and economic level but at its core, listening to a collective call not only for those who have been lost, but for the very humanity that kept us safe.

The constant swirl of recognition and anonymity is perfectly paced as the actors offer personal stories from Zinn’s perspective (and also that of other soldiers) that simultaneously take the form of visual installations.

With a minimal set and actors dressed in in stark suits of black and white, Chambers brings the rich and multi-layered text to the fore. But without trying (or even pretending to) wage war against the Bush regime. There is no need.

While those who dropped the bombs in Japan, France and Russia may never know the effects of their actions from 35,000 feet in the air, the legacy of their decisions continues today.

The work of Zinn created a generation of young Americans who have challenged and continue to challenge the notion of whether one should serve one’s country – or be complicit in the genocide (both at home and overseas) facilitated by serving one’s government.

As my friend said, the revolution need not always happen on the streets. It is in the theatre where great hearts and great minds can meet and occasionally – as with The Time of Our Lies –some productions also have the courage to be revolutionary.

FIVE STARS

HAYANI 

Two men, multiple characters, a story about home: finding home, defining and redefining home, and interrogating the fundamentals of what can actually constitute this notion of ‘home’ in post-apartheid South Africa.

That is the central narrative of Hayani. A Tshvenda word that means (no surprise) ‘home’, this highly physicalized production is a visual exploration of two men returning to the place they once recognised as their lodestone, travelling and transitioning through the various pit-stops along the road of life.

Employing a number of languages (including Xhosa, Tshvenda and English) the actors eloquently blur the lines of what can be conceived as a standardised means of communication. The multiplicity of languages further adds to the poly-vocal quality of the various characters they portray: fathers, mothers, sons, grandmothers, employers; all populating the journey of two men from very different backgrounds and experiences.

The power of this production lies in the incredible visceral investment both Sparky Xulu and Nat Ramabulana make in bringing essentially domestic vignettes to life. Accompanied by a solo live guitar on stage (music composed and performed by Matthew McFarlane) the production segues between a number of monologues and dialogues that are (for the most part) fairly clear in their transitions.

Both men play female and male characters equally well, a tenderness and lightness of touch alternating with moments of rambunctious behaviour, highly visual choreographed sequences and soft-spoken confessions.

At times however, the music feels unnecessary. Both actors are such versatile performing artists that occasionally a particular monologue is lifted out of the intimacy it is creating because of the intrusion of diegetic music. The central staging of the musician also makes the suspension of disbelief somewhat lopsided at best and, at worst, is simply intrusive.

The lighting is simple and effective and the minimalist set leaves plenty of room for the body and voice to have the space they need to create this systematic layering of reflections.

Replete with various hilarious (and recognisable) family patterns and behaviours this is a story unique and specific to South Africa but has universal appeal that enables it to transcend beyond autobiographic storytelling.

Often described as a ‘homecoming story’, this is much more than a retrospective on life with the gift of hindsight. It is an honest, fresh look at how we must stretch back into our past in order to look forward to the future.

FOUR STARS

JAPAN’S MARVELOUS DRUMMERS

The beat of the drum reverberates with the beat of the drummer’s heart. And no, this is not Les Miserables. This is Japan’s Marvelous Drummers who will ensure that at the end of the hour long musical extravaganza provided by this ensemble, your heart too will be in tune with the music.

Composed of five men and three women, this is not a mere drumming session, it is liberally sprinkled with humorous interludes, audience engagement and a display of extraordinary skill and strength.

Using a range of different instruments – including a number of different sized drums as well as the Koto (Japanese harp), Shinobue (Japanese bamboo flute) and other traditional instruments – this troupe enthusiastically commits to giving 150% to their performance, making up for occasional mistakes with superb good humour and endearing personalities.

The different musical pieces are well curated. Intense drumming is contrasted with a flute solo, both women and men display extraordinary amounts of strength and stamina, and the synchronicity and harmony with which the group operates as a whole in unmistakeable.

Their popularity is unquestionable but it does make one wonder, is such a performance valued mostly outside its country of origins as an exported commercial product? Is anything ‘authentic’ and how and where does that problematic term function when the audience are having such a rousing good time?

Personally, I appreciate the skill and technique, the unwavering delight in creating such a spectacular piece of performance, and while there may have been lapses every now and then (including in how they staged their communication) they can be forgiven in light of the exuberant performances.

THREE STARS

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http://www.theatreview.org.nz/reviews/review.php?id=7292