No Child… – Assembly Rooms – 4 stars
Apples – Traverse Theatre – 4 stars
Roadkill – Traverse Theatre@St Stephens – 5 stars
Cargo – Leith Links – 4 stars
Education, it seems, is rapidly becoming even more tailor-made for the privileged than it ever was. Giving voice to the terminally disenfranchised, however, remains a major concern of contemporary drama. No Child…, written and performed by Nilaja Sun is a quasi autobiographical study of life inside a classroom in the Bronx, where ‘Miss Sun’ embarks on a quest to pull together a captive audience of fast-talking multi-racial under-achievers through the power of a drama class. That Miss Sun’s quest involves a study of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, Our Country’s Good, in which Australian convicts are charged with performing restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer says as much about Sun’s consciously acquired meta-narrative as it does about freedom.
With Sun playing pupils, fellow teachers and an ageing janitor who frames the play Greek chorus style as well as herself, what emerges is a series of gimlet-eyed caricatures that are funny in their wise-cracking and cussing, but makes a serious point about empowerment and the right to a formal education too. Of course, all this is as sentimental a piece of schoolroom emancipation as the Blackboard Jungle, To Sir With Love and season four of The Wire. Yet Sun is such a whirlwind of comic versatility in Hal Brooks’ production for New York’s Barrow Street Theatre that it becomes an infectiously life-affirming and at times consciously heroic show and tell. What’s refreshing too is Sun’s refreshing willingness to recognise her own idealistic naiveté. It’s a trait that eventually gets the kids on her side, and also makes this show such a delight.
A Middlesborough council estate may be an ocean away from the Bronx, but the teenagers in John Retallack’s adaptation of twenty-three year old Richard Milward’s precocious debut novel, Apples, are going through similar growing pains and an education of an even more grown-up kind.
It begins with six teenagers in school uniform lined up in a row to explain how they gave way to temptation. For party chick Eve it was the first fruit of the original sin came via the sort of apples you don’t leave on teacher’s desk, but which come in temperature-rising pill form. Adam, meanwhile, is a far geekier proposition in a corrupted Eden where conceptions are considerably less than immaculate in a world of sex, drugs, violence and peer group pressure.
Retallack has consistently proved himself a master of such material in his Company of Angels outfit, and is no exception in all too familiar rites of passage for a very British youth. There are echoes in the gang’s purposelessly casual hedonism of the late Andrea Dunbar and Shelagh Delaney, other back street laureates of youthful despair and self-destruction. In Retallack’s deftly orchestrated production, however, played with fresh-faced vim by his youthful cast on a set of doors that gradually open out on a world of possibilities beyond the angst and brutality, there are hints of optimism and suggestions that things might turn out alright after all. The bite of life Apples presents, after all, brings people together as much as it tears them apart.
Teenagers don’t have a chance to mess up for themselves in Roadkill, Ankur Productions’ startling and at times harrowing up close and personal look at how commonplace sex trafficking is on our own doorstep. The audience take a bus from the Traverse, where excited Nigerian schoolgirl Mary has arrived in town with her chic ‘auntie’ Martha. The thrill of her new world soon turns to heartbreak, however, after we arrive at the Edinburgh townhouse that will become home, prison and living nightmare for the girl. One minute Mary is dancing brightly to Beyonce on TV, the next, we’re hearing the noises of an east European pimp brutalising her in the room next door while Beyonce morphs into garish animated images onscreen.
With Mary initiated into the business, we see and hear a relentless litany of her satisfied and occasionally not so satisfied customers through audio and video descriptions of her worth projected onto the ceiling. At night and alone at last, even Mary’s nightmares are writ large above her.
Where other productions might simply point out the inhumanities of such slavery, director Cora Bissett has crafted a vital piece of drama that uses Stef Smith’s text, Paul Sorley’s evocative mood lighting, Harry Wilson’s sound design, Kim Beveridge’s projections and Marta Mackova’s animations to troublingly un-nerving effect. Adura Onashile plays Martha with brittle desperation, while on Kazek plays all the men with a variety of menaces and pathetic bullying. Its Mercy Ojelade’s Mary, however, who leaves a lump in the throat as we watch her corrupted innocence transformed into something wilier. In the end she may grow stronger than her captors, but where she’ll end up next is the most worrying indictment of the cruelest and most exploitative of crimes.
Down on Leith Links, Cargo too presents a microcosm of lost nations in search of a home. This outdoor spectacle produced by Iron-Oxide and Edinburgh’s multi-cultural MELA festival is an ancient fable made flesh as a boat-load of nation-less nomads attempt to find a place they can call home. Across oceans they face rejection as well as piracy as doors are shut in their faces in an epic struggle against the elements.
There are obvious contemporary parallels in Dougie Irvine’s ambitiously multi-faceted production that puts playfulness to the fore in the story’s wordlessly fantastical telling. The performers travel across continents on designer Becky Minto’s series of magnificently larger than life vessels, while music director Jim Sutherland brings together an array of cross-continental contemporary sounds pulsed along by live musicians Galverino Ceron-Carrasco and Vahe Hovanesian’s Klezmer-inflected score.
Cargo has the feel of the sort of events we’re more used to Catalan companies bringing to Edinburgh. In actual fact, it’s the product of a home-grown undercurrent of street-art that’s come up through a grassroots alternative underground. With actors of such pedigree as Anita Vettesse, Billy Mack and Mary Gapinski leading the charge like some traveling sprites, however, the feel is of all hands on deck coming together as a global village. Such an internationalist initiative on such a large scale is a refreshing antidote to all the badness elsewhere as in the dead of night it takes us to infinitely calmer waters.
The Herald, August 13th 2010