Saturday 26 August 2006

Persae

Smirnoff Underbelly, Edinburgh

Persae is something of a departure for Van Badham. While the subject matter - war, gender politics and power - is familiar, the form is radically new. In place of the naturalistic dialogue and character development that have characterised Badham’s work till now, we have a chorus, poetic soliliquies, and even a sing-song.

This is partly because Persae is an adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Persians, a play about the Greeks’ vanquished foes coming to terms with defeat. The clever twist, and this is the sort of thing we should expect from Badham, is that, with the action updated to the war on terror, this time it is the West that is defeated. Instead of asking us to pity the women of Iraq, Badham turns our gaze on Barbara Bush, the war-haunted mother of the US president. Amid the hubbub of all-American Fox-style media and government spin doctors’ carefully managed presentation of the war on terror, the First Mother veers from the script, exposing her fear and confusion to the nation, while the returning hero she is supposed to be honouring turns out to be equally traumatised by his own conduct in Iraq. For the final act, the action shifts to Badham’s home country Australia, where defeat stings even more urgently. 

Apart from one seriously wayward Australian accent, and some rather undernourished-looked American soldiers, the performances are all good in what is very much an ensemble piece, from the opening salvo delivered by the chorus to the final wistful song they all sing. A screen at the centre of the stage is used for both video projection and James Bond-style silhouette play for the traumatic stuff. The final scene, with the appearance of a chatty busker, wobbles the fourth wall just enough to make Badham’s point that this is about us. 

Indeed, the terrorist attack in Australia is clearly an allusion to last year’s London bombings. Badham takes the opportunity to ridicule those who deny the bombings were a response to the Iraq war. Amid the carnage in Australia, the survivors shout that it must have been the French, or the Japanese, or perhaps animal rights activists or asylum seekers. But this really is ridiculous. The serious argument about the London bombings is not whether the bombers would have listed Iraq as a grievance, but whether four Koran-bashers from Yorkshire had any right to act as they did, any meaningful connection to the Iraqi people. (Nobody doubted that the 1991 Western attack on Iraq had something to do with Kuwait, but not everyone accepted this as a legitimate reason or the underlying cause.) 

The idea that the West is losing the war on terror has some merit, however. Arguably even the situation in Iraq is unwinnable, and certainly it highlights the moral and ideological vacuum at the heart of Western politics. Badham hammers the point home by presenting us with George W Bush’s address to the Iraqi people, urging us this time not to collaborate with a dying regime, warning that it will be no excuse to say that we were just following orders. Point taken. The difference is that while there may be further bombings, there will be no conquering army (only crazed Islamists and hysterical right-wingers imagine an imminent global caliphate). Even if the war on terror is being lost, there is nobody to surrender to. We are all Persians.

Once again, Van Badham has given us a thought-provoking play that works as more than a vehicle for her own, conventional left-wing politics. This is an incredibly downbeat play, almost breathtaking in its pessimism and negativity, but Badham isn’t making it up; it is the logical conclusion of much contemporary thought about the war on terror and life in general. As such, it is also an invitation to think differently.


Till 27 August 2006.


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