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February 17, 2014 5:42 pm
I first encountered Theatre Ad Infinitum in a hot, dark room at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009, when one man stepped on to a small stage to act out Homer’s Odyssey without props, music or noticeable costuming. It was a mesmerising 70 minutes. The actor (George Mann, also co-artistic director of the company) fluidly inhabited the homesick Odysseus, then Penelope and her oily suitors, and even the moon and mists, giving distinctive traits to each. By the time Odysseus and Penelope were tremblingly reunited, many in the audience had been moved to tears.
Odyssey was a word-of-mouth hit, Mann winning The Stage award for best solo performer at the Fringe that year. But Theatre Ad Infinitum’s real breakthrough came two years later, again at the Edinburgh Fringe, with Translunar Paradise, a tale of grief told through mime and music. Performances sold out and the production picked up three awards and widespread press attention.
The company returned to Edinburgh last summer with something very different. Ballad of the Burning Star, which has now moved to the Battersea Arts Centre in London, is not only the company’s first overtly political piece – about a boy growing up in the Israeli-occupied territories – but also its first foray into cabaret.
Nir Paldi, Mann’s co-artistic director, had wanted to do a play about Israel for many years. In a sense, Ballad is his story: looking out over the Thames from a café in London’s Southbank Centre, he describes his childhood in an Israeli settlement. “I didn’t feel at home in this environment, surrounded by Palestinian villages who wanted their home back.”
Leaving Israel didn’t banish his sense of unease. On moving to Paris, “I started feeling that I was for the first time a Jew. Every time you’re asked where are you from and you say Israel, it’s like throwing a hand grenade into the room.” For Paldi, Ballad was a way of “giving form to that confusion”. The play explores what he sees as an Israeli “identity crisis”, torn between the labels of victim and persecutor.
Paldi and Mann began devising a one-man play in which Paldi related his experiences, but they soon realised it wouldn’t work. “It was too direct, too much someone saying something,” Paldi tells me. “I needed some sort of a mask.” Enter Star, a provocative drag queen played by Paldi (who also directed the show). Cabaret provided the theatrical distance he sought, while allowing him to take risks. “Star is the court fool, someone who can say whatever she wants,” he explains.
Star is also a metaphor for Israel and her troupe one for the Palestinians. But Ballad works on a metatheatrical level as well. Paldi believes the strength of the show – which again attracted awards, acclaim and full houses in Edinburgh – is that “rather than telling you something, it puts you through an experience. We are telling you a narrative about Israel but the whole show is falling apart in front of your eyes. The mask of the drag queen is crumbling; the relationship between Star and her troupe and the musicians and the audience is crumbling.”
Cabaret is a far cry from the animated storytelling of Odyssey or the mime of Translunar Paradise. “Each time [we make a show] the subject matter challenges us to find a new form,” Mann says. In Translunar Paradise, which he directed and starred in, “we wanted to talk about grief, which is hard to talk about. A lot of what I experienced when I went through grief was without words, and so I wanted to put that into a piece without words.”
Mann and Paldi met at the Lecoq theatre school in Paris. Its founder, the mime artist Jacques Lecoq, “believed the foundation of everything you do [on stage] is the body, even the text comes from the voice and the breath”, enthuses Mann. “When you engage the body you engage the audience: they reflect your level of tension.” He and Paldi were deeply influenced by their training, and this insistence on the importance of movement is what connects their company’s diverse work. Sets may be sparse and costumes minimal, but every step and stumble is choreographed. “When I write a piece, I don’t just write the text, I write the bodies on stage as well,” Mann says. “We have to be as detailed with movement as any playwright would be with a script.”
It’s sometimes said that continental Europe is more open to physical theatre than Britain, with its rich text-based tradition, and Mann admits it hasn’t always been easy. But when I put this to Paldi, I get a different response. “I came here six years ago and now I have a theatre company: this is a place where things are possible. In other countries, it’s just not like that. Audiences in Britain are very open and honest.”
Theatre Ad Infinitum’s next production will be non-verbal, like Translunar Paradise, yet, like Ballad, it will tackle a big political issue: this time, government surveillance. Inspired by Orwell, CCTV and the Edward Snowden revelations, it plays with the idea of darkness – the only light will be from handheld torches – as well as silence. It will premiere in Edinburgh this August.
Mann and Paldi would like to take Ballad to Israel. But considering the show caused controversy in the liberal atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe – with one man grabbing Paldi’s dress mid-performance – it would be a big risk. “People would see me as a traitor very quickly,” says Paldi. “It’s like I’m doing Israel’s dirty laundry outside.”
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