Saturday, October 07, 2017

Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun - bleak, honest and questioning (Lyric until 7 October) #BelFest

The contents of a home are strewn across a somewhat overgrown semicircle of waste ground. Sitting behind a desk in the back corner of the stage, Consolate Sipérius confirms that her house in Burundi was “surrounded and plundered” by Tutsi militia. Somehow she escaped their murder spree, was adopted by European parents and is now living in Belgium and working as an actor. This sets the scene for the play Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun that opens this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival.
“This is a world without compassion.”
Into this mess steps a well coiffured and elegant woman played by Ursina Lardi. Her hour and a half monologue begins by questioning how we perceive conflict and migration in Europe. She stands behind a lectern amidst the contents of Consolate’s house which gives her utterances a sense of authority, or “whitesplaining” as one director/producer in the audience suggested.

Her questions wobble across a tightrope spanning pertinence and impertinence. I started to inwardly judge fellow audience members who were, perhaps, nervously laughing at her more outlandish observations.

Lardi then takes us back to when the fictional newly qualified young Swiss teacher was recruited to the ‘Teachers in Conflict’ NGO and sent to do good work in the Central Africa region that includes Burundi, Rwanda and what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. An enormous can of worms is opened and over an hour they crawl across the stage as she unpicks the role of NGOs in situations of conflict and displacement.

She undermines her own caring credentials: is it white privilege to be able to block out the sound of genocide on the other shore of the lake with classical music? In tribal conflicts, is it ethical to be “pampering those who had committed atrocities” and are now living in refugee camps?

A recurring device used by Rau is to critique the theatre industry alongside the conflict industry. Directors are “arseholes”. Consolate is simply representing the latest in a long line of vulnerable minorities to be elevated to a prominent position based on the zeitgeist. (Later we discover the full extent of her acting career.)

The play’s crucial observation – and the reason for its title – is that at the end of each stage of a conflict, “all that matters is who has the machine gun”. NGOs cannot, or fail to, predict what will happen next. Are their best efforts based on the current situation really good enough? By unwitting ignorance or design are NGOs complicit in collaborating with evil actors in conflicts? Lardi shocks the audience with her own humiliating act of collaboration and self-preservation.

Writer/director Milo Rau has crafted an appropriately bleak and multi-layered narrative that exerts incredible control as it nimbly walks across the moral ambiguity that litters the uneven stage along with the contents of Consolate’s home. Video close-ups of the actors are deftly used to augment the narrative and gently add complexity to the script.

Ursina Lardi’s face will continue to look out from the screen long after she has left the stage. Her questions – whether worthy or warped – will haunt. It would have been interesting to hear a panel of NGOs react to the play and it’s questioning message after the performance.

The UK and Irish première of Schaubühne’s Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun did not disappoint. The quality and depth of performance and production that was displayed when An Enemy of the People came to Belfast Festival back in 2014 was repeated.

The final performance of Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun which opens this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival is in the Lyric Theatre on Saturday 7 October. This new work is a confident and thought-provoking piece of theatre that is both contemporary in its design and its theme. Outside the festival, you’ll rarely see such a piece of international theatre on this island.


jstothers said...

Enjoyed your review Alan. I too for a moment inwardly judged those laughing and then realised I was judging myself. Reminded me of the story of the Sunday School teacher who, after the lesson was 'The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector', said 'Now, children, let's thank God that we're not like that nasty Pharisee' Staying on a 'God' theme - I was intrigued by the ending which took an incarnational view of sufferring - God with us in the middle of it.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

It's remarkably rich as a script and a performance despite the simplicity of the staging (which isn't really as simple as it looks). Would bear reading or seeing again - though that's unlikely to be possible for quite some time!