The Edinburgh Festival’s 70th birthday kicked off with Bloom, an impressive light show with music and images projecting 70 years of news onto the buildings of St Andrew Square. Scottish independence, Trump and Brexit are the prial of political themes this year, in places large and small. In a feat of theatrical therapy, more than 20 shows feature Donald Trump. Problem is, political theatre is often of the dog-whistle variety.
Good political theatre should ask you to think, not prescribe what to think, so it was a delight to find some thoughtful shows. We don’t need to be lectured or hectored into thinking that we appear poleaxed in Western democracy. Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros offers more subtle commentary. Portraying a village in France where the locals are turning into rhinoceroses, the hapless Bérenger, brilliantly mastered by Robert Jack, stands alone in defiance as he loses his friends to the phenomenon, crying out for human fallibility against the herd.
It is fitting that a Turkish company should partner with a Scottish theatre – two ends of the European conundrum – to show our current predicament in such a humorous and manic light. Zinnie Harris’s adaptation is thrilling and refreshing for our times. Murat Daltaban’s direction keeps the drama consistently absorbing, with visually stunning staging by Tom Piper and Chris Davey. The bath scene by Bérenger’s friend Jean (played in handbrake turns of power and subtlety by Steven McNicoll) was powerful: revealing the transformation into a rhinoceros as a believable occurrence.
Staging the politics of science is not easily done, but offers many dramatic opportunities if done right. Paper Doll achieves this. A new futuristic play by Susan Eve Haar tackles the troubling ethics of cloning, but isn’t lost in the science. She has written a thought-provoking insight into the nature of human love amidst the possibilities of science. Jen can’t have a baby and so husband Rog arranges to have her cloned as a surprise anniversary gift. Premiered in the city of Dolly the Sheep, this future is not so far away. Rog sees the cloned baby as an act of his love, but the couple keep pulling back and forth in a dance of love, tenderly directed by Abigail Zealey Bess.
Gun control, America’s political hot potato, is tackled by The Gun Show, taking us beyond the polarised debate. Guns are in the Constitution, and are useful if you live an hour away from the nearest police officer in rural Oregon, where writer Ellen Lewis grew up, and where the play starts.
Played by a man, powerfully so by Vic Shambry, Ellen relates five stories about guns. With slick direction it pulls no punches, neither preaching nor bullying. The play recognises the real tragedy of guns is the lack of progress, and so the killing goes on. Children die. Domestic incidents end in death. In Ellen’s case it is her husband’s suicide, and as we learn in this poignant production guns are frequently the tools of suicide.
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