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Review: Ballad Of The Burning Star

Image: Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum's Ballad Of The Burning Star was the highlight of my trip to Edinburgh.

This is one of those shows that on paper, or to sum up in a sentence, sounds downright bizarre, arty and depending on your preference - a bit daunting. I know when I first went to Edinburgh in 2008 the idea of the show would have scared me off. 

Coincidentally I did see the company during that trip - their first Fringe visit with Behind The Mirror, a physical theatre, clowning piece. They've changed and progressed a lot in the last five years.

So, to crudely sum up the show: it tells the story of Israel through cabaret, physical theatre and stoytellling - with a man in drag playing an Israeli little boy, aided by a chorus of dancing, multi-roling international divas.

For what can be a very serious subject matter, this may seem like an odd manner in which to tell the story. I guess it is, but it's also absolutely perfect.

Peter Ustinov once said that "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious" - a phrase which I think is very apt here, and indeed the production doesn't hide from the serious either.

The production lends from Nir Paldi's (co-artistic director, performer and writer) own experiences as well as those put forward by Israel Defence Forces solders who have told their stories to Breaking the Silence.

With this personal and very real connection to the material, sensitivity is at the heart of the piece - it may be funny but it is never flippant. It also gives an urgency to the material: a story that needs to be told, and it feels all the more powerful for it.

Credit really should go to Nir Paldi for his exuberant performance as Star, who leads us through the show. He is perfect as the bitchy director, assailing his chorus with "unplanned" diversions from their set, but also as the little boy. 

In high heels and make-up, this may seem hard to buy into but it's not - very quickly we believe him - as he plays with his brother and pleads with his parents - the vulnerability is palpable.

The chorus also provide an incredible energy and commitment which seems rare to see. In their vocals and choreography they are fierce - even their shimmying feels military-like. Much of the humour comes from the interaction between the chorus and Star, as he finds fault in their performances. 

In this way it really comes through how conflict is at the centre of this performance - as criticisms and complaints cut quickly back to unity, it mirrors the unsettled nature of the piece and its source material.

I chose to see the piece knowing the quality and innovation of the company - and I think word of mouth and reviews must so help this company, as the style of the production is a perfect vehicle for a story that people don't always want to hear.

This is a surprisingly easy piece to watch, but after the show it stays with you and get you thinking - not just about the production but about your relationship to the material.

Every day conflict in the Middle East is in the news and I realise I've never really listened. I think this is something many are guilty of - it's there so much that we don't take it in, or at least not as something that is really happening. 

By focusing on one family, the production makes it all so very real. The piece also imparts information, making us realise the extensive history of the persecution of Jewish people. 

When the chorus recite a list of instances of persecutions, they are spoken over by Star - telling us the list will go on and on, to go to the toilet or grab a drink. Eventually he cuts them off, knowing there's no way they could ever get through the list.

While the holocaust is something we learn and think about, the rest of Israeli history is quietened. Through the stories we are shown we are forced to listen, and not to forget.

One moment in the piece took me by surprise and caused me to be on the brink of tears. As the 'mother' of the chorus was movingly breaking down - Star interrupts by meeting her on the ground with a gold star, complimenting her for portraying grief so well. They let us feel it, then they bring us back. Theatre students among you will appreciate the Stan/Brecht-ness of all this. It's funny, and it's very powerful.

In the last moments of the piece though, they let the poignant moment hang - as we see yet another side to the story. With a bare stage and outlandish costume removed, we come back to a harsh reality, and that is the one that stays with you.

Sitting outside another venue I heard a group of young people discussing what they could go and see. Someone mentioned Ballad, and said it had been described as "ambitious" which was "usually code for trying too hard."

I don't really get what that phrase means - they try bloody hard and it pays off, with a powerful piece of theatre that is unlike anything I've seen. It's easy to grow cynical and try to decode copy and reviews, but really - Theatre Ad Infinitum are a company you need to see, and I'm so glad that they're ambitious.

Only they could tell a, or the, story of Israel in 1 hour and 20 minutes - with sensitivity in tact. They're cheeky, charming and win us over. 

Who knew glitz and glamour would be a winning combination for a hard-hitting piece of political theatre?

So yes, go and see them in Edinburgh. Then, in November come and see Translunar Paradise in The Marlowe Studio in Canterbury if you're local, or elsewhere if you're not. This is their previous critically acclaimed, award-winning production that's toured internationally - and seems to break everyone's heart that sees it. Take tissues.

Theatre Ad Infinitum's Ballad Of The Burning Star plays in the Pleasance Dome at 5.15pm until 26 August.