Review: Tabula Rasa – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Tuesday November 14 2017

Four Stars

Live music has long been an integral part of Scottish theatre. The influence of the music hall can be found in everything from pantomime to political works by 7:84 and Wildcat. Recent successes from the National Theatre of Scotland have included the musical Glasgow Girls and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a piece of “ceilidh-theatre” that toured pubs and village halls.

Less usual is the inclusion of classical music in narrative theatre. This new collaboration between Vanishing Point – the company behind inventive shows such as Interiors and The Destroyed Room – and the Scottish Ensemble, creates a hypnotic hybrid that is equal parts monologue and classical recital.

Pauline Goldsmith in

Pic: Niall Walker

The show’s musical element, performed by the 11-strong string ensemble led by Jonathan Morton and featuring pianist Sophia Rahman, comprises four pieces by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, whose spare works move up and down in step from the topmost harmonics of the violin to the depths of the double bass. When the entire ensemble plays, as in the title piece, a series of simple sustained rhythms compete and overlap to mesmerising effect.

 

It comes as no surprise to learn that Pärt’s ethereal music is known to be of comfort to people with terminal illnesses. The production’s narrative strand, co-written by the director Matthew Lenton and Pauline Goldsmith, who also performs, focuses on a man’s deterioration and death, and the transcendent effect of music in a secular setting. The spare, elliptical series of snapshots opens with an at-times blackly comic description of “the tensest funeral ever”, working its way back to the more harrowing aspects of Peter’s final months.

Jonathan Morton and members of SE in

Pic: Niall Walker

While the overall portrait does not entirely avoid sentimentality, the raw honesty of Peter’s rage and anguish in the face of death is refreshing and Goldsmith delivers a sympathetic performance as the man’s helpless friend.

 

The musical interludes complement these passages of text, allowing space to contemplate the questions raised by the story, around care and compassion and what it means to live meaningfully and die with dignity. As this is Vanishing Point, the production is also visually gorgeous, lit in subtle shades by Kai Fischer, with the performers fading in and out of the space, like ghosts.

 

Touring Scotland to November 24. Vanishing-point.org

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