Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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'The Death of Klinghoffer' and 'Prayer Room' at The 2005 Edinburgh International Festival
Last uploaded : Saturday 27th Aug 2005 at 22:18
Contributed by : The Editor


'The Death of Klinghoffer' at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre

The first thing one has to put on record about 'The Death of Klinghoffer' is the bone-chilling event at the end of the opera. When the artists came out for their bows on the night we attended, the applause was hearty but polite. When the men playing the Palestinian terrorists came out, the audience at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre went wild. Very possibly the upper seats were jammed with jihadists but the difference in tone of the appreciation shown the other performers and that shown the Palestinians was stunning. Yes, Kamel Boutros, Oriol Roses, D'Arcy Bleiker and Darren Abrahams were superb but this incident stayed in the mind.

'The Death of Klinghoffer,' by John Adams with libretto by Alice Goodman and directed by Anthony Neilson, is the story of the hijacking by the Palestinian Liberation Front (not PLO) of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in Mediterranean waters. After the Palestinians' and Jews' choruses and the Captain's aria, the terrorists jump out of the seats in the audience and 'kidnap' various audience members who are actually part of the Scottish Opera cast. This gimmick is cheap and quite terrifying for those of us who remember the Moscow Theatre siege, but as the British papers had warned audiences ahead of time that this would take place, there was no fear of heart failure amongst ticket holders.

The opening chorus, which sets the scene for the entire evening, is the in-your-face lament of the Palestinian who has lost his home and can no longer sit in his courtyard with a cool drink or watch the birds come and go. Nothing is left of the stone house. Embellishment with large subtitles adds to the power of this imagery; it is a kind of political onslaught comparable to an overdose-with-music of Robert Fisk and Suzanne Goldenberg rolled into one. (It is notable that the librettist is Jewish and American, although Goodman converted to Christianity several years ago and is now an Anglican curate.) The second chorus, supposedly of the Jews, is less powerful and leaves one bemused: were it not in the programme one would not even know this is the Jewish part of the opening scene.

The events on the liner are obscured by scenes that try to show the humanity of the terrorists. One wonders what sort of opera might have been composed by a team that had some element of sympathy for the terror-plagued Israelis. Heartbreakingly, it is virtually impossible to understand one word sung in a long aria by the 'British Dancing girl' and one suspects she has some vital information to impart. Jonathan Summers as the doomed passenger, the elderly, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, singled out by the terrorists for being Jewish and American, is also muffled. Having attended two Festival talks about the opera, it is evident many audience members were unable to comprehend large swathes of the libretto. Why subtitles were not used throughout the production is unclear.

It is also unclear whether or not the use of the dancing girl as a poster-carrier is in the original libretto. Bad taste is taken to its limit when she carts large placards onstage announcing that Klinghoffer merchandise, t-shirts and so forth are on sale in the lobby. To add to the bad taste, she comes onstage after the curtain calls with more cards thanking the audience for coming to the show.

Notwithstanding our shock at the imapssioned ovation reserved for the singers playing the terrorists, there is no doubt the four singers are outstanding. Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Marilyn Klinghoffer gave the most powerful performance.

Considering this is Anthony Neilson's first stab at directing an opera it is a monumental achievement; he manages to convey the atmosphere of entrapment of the passengers (anyone who has been on a cruise will admit feeling trapped even in the best of circumstances) , and his full use of the stage is commendable.

The Adams score is uneven, but this may be due to the many cuts made; like 'Prayer Room,' this piece does nothing to improve Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations.

PRAYER ROOM by Shan Khan
The Royal Lyceum Theatre

The whole premise upon which 'Prayer Room' (by Shan Khan, directed by Angus Jackson) is based is a dangerous and even implausible one. Here is a university chapel in which various faiths may seek sanctuary. Along come a pair of Jewish students, (Hannah Watkins and Iddo Goldberg) and soon the Jews have Friday for their prayers, evicting the Muslims.(Riz Ahmed and Ashley Madekwe) This causes visceral anger from the Muslim quarter, whilst a sub-plot follows the evangelical nastiness of the Christian prayer group (led by William Ellis, with Jimmy Akingbola and Peter Swander.) Scenes are played out in the room with plentiful expletives and little humour. There is no spirituality present, Khan's message being the futility of interfaith cooperation.

In a painful scene in which the Jewish girl is opening her heart -- and perhaps a romantic connection -- to her fellow worshipper, the Muslims storm in and commence praying. A confrontation ensues and soon the men and women come to blows, the female fight a near-fatal one.

The play has an abrupt ending, and seems incomplete. At a Festival Talk with the playwright, a member of the public mentioned this and it was a comment one heard in the audience after the actual performance.

Although the portrayals were powerful, the idea of young Jews swearing their way around the day is an uncomfortable one. It is odd that Reuben does not wear a kippa. This is an unfinished work based on a questionable premise: would a pair of Anglo-Jews stop Muslims from praying in a Friday in London? It is doubtful. That hordes of impressionable young people were pouring into the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum at the Saturday matinee and will do so in Birmingham for the next run is disturbing. In the programme, Khan refers to Israel as an apartheid state. Anyone who has visited Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem knows this is a treacherous slander against the Jewish State. It gives one pause about the playwright's objectivity on such a sensitive subject as prayer.

Putting politics aside, this is not a play worthy of the main Festival. We saw many plays on the fringe infinitely worthier of such exposure and backing. The script needs considerable work and the message it tries to convey will do nothing to promote interfaith harmony in an already tense Britain.

The Royal Lyceum Theatre 0131 473 2000

'Guardians' by Peter Morris and directed by Michael Longhurst for the Mahwaff Theatre Company is a two-hander about the Abu Ghraib prison photographs and the fraudulent images perpetrated by 'The Daily Mirror' on its readers. It has won a Fringe First Award.

It sets two alternating monologues, one by a tabloid reporter and picture caption writer (Hywel John) and the other by Lynndie England (MyAnna Buring), the soldier who held a nameless Iraqi prisoner on a leash, alongside each other in a study of responsibility.

The reporter is a ruthlessly ambitious, bisexual bounder with a top-drawer accent who will do anything to advance his career to the ultimate prize of writing for a mainstream broadsheet newspaper as prestigious as 'The Guardian.' He becomes involved with a young man to whom he condescendingly refers as 'my boy', and involves him in posing for the faked images of British soldiers abusing prisoners. He does indeed move ahead in his career, not without some pangs of guilt. In real life, it was Piers Morgan, Editor of the 'Mirror' who suffered the end of his long career as an Editor.

In the case of Lynndie England, her heartbreaking story of rags to ruin manages to endear her to an audience one imagines came to the play wanting to reinforce its hatred of her and of all of America.

Buring as Lynnndie gives a phenomenal performance; her West Virginia accent is perfect (the actress is British) and her grasp of the character total. Should this play transfer to the United States it will inevitably and regrettably be cast with two stars, but this actress is a talent to watch. She leaves an indelible impression of the abused female soldier, beaten by her superior officer, Charlie, and rejected by her family when she is charged at the military tribunal.

Hywel John as the reporter and caption writer is another star in the making; he makes one want to punch him at times, and at once engages one with a degree of sympathy as he agonises over having to write the weather report when the Abu Ghraib images are coming in. Even he blanches at the idea of having to write captions for the Abu Ghraib photographs. What possessed the 'Mirror' to fake British copycat images will never be clear.

What is clear, and what makes the play so shattering, is Lynndie's certainty that the orders to torment the prisoners came from on high and her satisfaction that one day justice will be done to those who have escaped punishment. This is a superbly-written play with two unforgettable performances.

Playing until 29 August at the Pleasance Cavern at 15:50PM. If you are in Edinburgh -- go now!

Todd Cerveris performs a tour-de-force one-man show, 'The Booth Variations,' exploring the life and times of the legendary actor Edwin Booth written by Caridad Svich and directed by Nick Philippou, with side-stage narration and 'the voice of Mathew Brady' by Tom Butler. It is our runner-up show for Best of the Fringe.

This piece may mean less to European audiences than to Americans, but the proportion of political material in the script is adequately balanced with the rich theatrical history of the nineteenth century United States, despite the comment once uttered by a British Brigadier within earshot of this reviewer that 'it is a pity America has no culture to speak of.'

What is astonishing about the versatility of Cerveris is his ability to convey the creeping insanity of the elder Booth, Junius Brutus, alongside the freshness of his son, the theatrical ing'nue Edwin. The young man, upon is father's complete disintegration into alcoholism and madness, becomes as overnight sensation and tours the United States as the foremost American actor of his age.

Video footage is set against these portrayals showing the anguish of the man who was convicted of being an accomplice to Lincoln's assassin, Edwin's brother John Wilkes Booth. Matthew Brady, (side-stage voice by Tom Butler) the legendary Civil War photographer, is given the task of capturing the great actor Edwin's image for posterity but can barely contain his hostility to the actor.

One is chilled realising the magnitude of the carnage unfolding every day in the hideous conflict between North and South, and the horror is all the more poignant as one realises that Booth is still travelling the length and breadth of the nation performing to crowds in the same escape-mode as Londoners clamouring to see a Dame Myra Hess concert during the Blitz.

At this writing there are only two more opportunities to see 'The Booth Variations' at the Edinburgh Festival. Cerveris is breathtaking, the production is original and the material thought-provoking in the present political climate of the United States and the rest of the world.

Highly recommended.
Assembly Rooms 54 George St Edinburgh; 12:40 PM until 29 August 2005.
0131 226 2428

'Wounded' by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble has to be the best thing we have seen this year at the main or fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and is perhaps the best I have seen in many years. Yes, it needs a bit of work but anything that moves one to tears from beginning to end has to be a product of thoughtful writing and excellent direction.

This is the story of a group of American veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom living in a 'Fisher House,' a recuperative home for war veterans and their families where a warm and caring environment is offered away from the clinical, often callous worlds of hospitals and physiotherapy centres.

Without doubt the most powerful character in this searing scenario is Bill, a Marine blinded in a combat operation but still fiercely patriotic; Brian Norris in the role is a dead-ringer for William H Macy but with quadruple the talent. His stage presence and utter absorption of the soul of the character he portrays are the lynchpin of the gripping hour. Beth, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who lost both legs below the knees but who, in agony, continued to attempt to save her crippled vehicle and injured men on board, wants more than anything to go back to Iraq if she can obtain prosthetic limbs adaptable to a pilot's requirements.

One can see that this play, reeking of the patriotism that so infuriates British and European observers, may have got up the backs of the Edinburgh establishment,, thus being ignored for major kudos and prizes. (Indeed, when I attended a talk by Anthony Neilson, who has directed 'The Death of Klingoffer' at the main opera Festival here, the moderator of the event, the arts editor of 'The Herald,' sycophantically drooled to Neilson that he could reveal an otherwise-embargoed piece of news: that the 'Klinghoffer' production would receive the Herald Angel Award. ) It is hard to imagine a play that so movingly examines the minds and hearts of loyal American servicemen and women being given succour by the crowds, kilts and all, who screamed with near-hysterical fervour at 'Klinghoffer' when the four Palestinian terrorists came out for their bows on the night I attended the opera.

?Wounded' incorporates four stories skilfully juxtaposed within a cramped stage setting. Doc, who has lost one lower leg in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack, recounts the horror of watching his life's blood float away before he has even seen is first-born child, Caitlin. His wife and child are now ensconced in the Fisher House but tensions arise because, like so many returned war veterans, wounded or not, he has more in common with the other 'healers' than with his long-suffering wife. His attraction to Beth, and her angry confrontations with visiting brother Devyn, an anti-war activist, and her sister, trapped in a Wal-Mart job to pay the household bills and look after a deranged mother, create a tension that literally vibrates through the tiny theatre space. Beth wears with pride her father's army ring, melted down through three generations to match each man's -- and now woman's -- war.

Added to this maelstrom is the newcomer Angel, who is trying to come to terns with her boyfriend's recent catastrophic injuries in Iraq; Bill urges her to cut and run rather than look after a man who will be left to spend the rest of his life with her possessed of just one limb.

Set against this is an Iraqi woman in full traditional black burkah, (Jill Winternitz) seated in the audience. She is Doc's nightmare -- the woman he had warned but who had approached him, baby in her arms and who he and his men thought was a threat. Indeed, his leg was blown to bits but her life was also destroyed. Doc's nightmares and seizures, Bill's anger and the loud confrontations as they pass their days playing poker are repeatedly quietened down by Rose, the Administrator, (Whitney Kaufman) and one can see this is a scenario played out across America every day as the result of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements.

Powerful performances are given by all members of the cast, although Michael Lovan as Devyn needs considerable voice work. His character is important but his delivery of the anti-war message was weak and without passion. Albert Meijer as Doc, Nicole Reding as Beth, both portraying wheelchair-bound characters, are compelling. Rebecca Davis as Beth and Devyn's sister Brina, Lauren Eckstrom as the very young, almost cholcike Angel and Meredith Hines as Doc's wife are effective in what could have become a crowded little stage space. With direction of immense sensitivity by Tom Burmester of a script constructed from testimony at a Fisher House near Walter Reed Army Hospital (unbelievably, set for closure under the current 'BRAC' Base Re-alignment and Closure plans by the Pentagon in the middle of two wars and a war on terror) , this is a piece that ought to have mainstream backing.

What a pity this did not get a centre-stage production instead of the lamentable and deeply mediocre 'Prayer Room.' (see our review.)

One can only wish the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble Godspeed with this superb production that left this reviewer so moved as to be unable to face seeing anything else for the rest of the day or evening.

The play needs further development into a full-length piece of mainstream theatre with a natural interval break, and in that form could emerge as one of the most powerful works on stage this year.

'Wounded' is playing at Rocket@Demarco Roxy Art House, lady Glenochry's Church, Roxburgh Place tel 0871 750 0077

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