Review: Veil, 19/03/08
March 26, 2008
Horse And Bamboo Theatre have created a visually beautiful piece of work, managing to turn the modest studio space at South Street into a completely other world. Hiding the actors inside oversized masks – faces that are unchanging and that force all expression down into the body – is a bold move, and one that allows any character to be played, effectively, by any member of the small five person cast – the practical and the aesthetic merge here. The set is large and impressive – including sand dunes, building façades, museums and a scaffold crane – and is moved about and built and dismantled with practiced ease by the players. There is beautiful Assyrian statuary, including a wonderful winged bull or genii that rises from behind the dunes like a true discovery. And the music, the soundtrack of the show is powerful, fitting and accompanies the mime perfectly.
The story of the piece concerns an archaeologist working in Mesopotamia who rapes a local woman. She has twins and he steals one of them before returning to the West. The remaining twin is brought up by her mother and cuckolded father and when her mother dies, fifteen or twenty years later, is kicked out for looking out of the window at a water-seller. She wanders the streets, becomes a refugee from war and eventually, presumably, ends up in Paris. Meanwhile the other sister has been brought up by the archaeologist for all these years and is taken to the exhibition of his Assyrian finds, which has obviously been a long time coming. While he’s out of the room the young woman has a sudden vision of her conception, mystically seen through the eyes of one of the statues. She runs off, bumps into her twin in the street outside and finally they’re able to reconcile their recurring dreams (nightmares concerning a locked gate and a stranger) and lay their father’s ghost.
Or that’s how the story seems – even with the finest physical theatre skills it’s sometimes hard to pin down a perfect narrative. Horse And Bamboo attempt to overcome the ambiguity of the form with snatches of pre-recorded narrative, which sketch in moments of story, and it is from this voice (that of one of the women) that we learn the name of the only named character in the play. The archaeologist is revealed to be Paul-Émile, and it is here that things become awkward.
Paul-Émile Botta was a French consul and archaeologist of the 19th century working in the Ottoman Empire (now Iraq) who discovered Ninevah and who did uncover Assyrian statuary just as appears in this show – some of it ended up in the Louvre, some in the British Museum, but much of it is at the bottom of the Tigris where the boats carrying them were sunk by Arab pirates. If there is evidence that he did the horrendous thing he’s portrayed as doing here (I haven’t read a biography, merely done some easy research), then all well and good, but if he didn’t then this show is a dire calumny – and not knowing (there is no programme with historical notes accompanying the production) is a very uneasy position to be in.
On the other hand, if the whole thing is intended as a metaphor for the West’s ‘thievery’ of Middle Eastern statuary and artefacts, then the arguments on either side of that debate are too complex to be dealt with in this pantomimed manner. All the same, it’s a visually arresting and involving show, with some lovely set pieces and a glorious aural world to lose yourself in for an evening, and with a narrative told like this, lose yourself you will.