[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)
The closing moments of Ballad of the Burning Star may be among the most moving and powerful that I have ever seen. The ending is a gut-punch, a game-changer, it will make you re-evaluate the entire theatrical experience you have just had – and what an experience it is. To say that Ballad of the Burning Star is a drag cabaret show about Israel is true, but somehow doesn’t quite do it justice.
This is the new offering from Theatre Ad Infinitum, whose smash-hit Translunar Paradise netted the company reams of praise and piles of awards in both 2011 and 2012, though Ballad of the Burning Star could hardly be more different in both theme and execution. Nir Paldi, co-Artistic Director of the company, writes, directs and plays the central role, Star. She is a bolshy drag queen, completely at ease commanding the room, and she’d like to tell us a story about Israel, a little boy who grew up in the tortured country that shares his name.
Paldi’s found a hugely original way to tell his semi-autobiographical tale, utilising the cabaret format to full effect and filling the show with music and dance. The music is provided by Camp David (Adam Pleeth), who has composed a score for the show which he performs live, while Paldi is joined on stage by the Starlets, an international group of dancing girls that features women from Canada, Japan, the UK, Austria and Israel. To see an exploration of the real family stories connected to the Israel-Palestine conflict would already be pretty fascinating: Star tells us about Israel’s little brother Eithan; their father, who fought in the Lebanon war; their mother’s mother, a Holocaust-survivor whose entire family died in Auschwitz. This format just adds another mad layer to a show that is already rich and fascinating.
Not all of it comes off; for instance, some elements of the interaction between Star and her performers are a little hard to understand. It soon becomes clear that Star is not the happiest or healthiest of people: she runs her uniformed dancers with military precision and force, as well as flashes of cruelty and favouritism. Amy Nostbakken’s Merciless Miriam has a particularly nicely defined relationship with Star, of antagonism and mutual frustration, which adds a texture that is interesting but perhaps, at times, a little distracting.
Still, some sections definitely benefit from the humour of the cabaret format: somehow, all that largeness lends them a lightness of touch, and keeping things generally upbeat makes the moments of horror all the more horrifying. There’s one particularly subtle sequence, set during a history class at Israel’s school, in which the Starlets run through a list of Jewish persecutions, from the twelfth century to the present. Star soon grows bored, sits at the side and heckles them, and eventually cuts them short – but doing this only underscores how long, how appallingly long, that list really is.
There are also some fascinating ambiguities in Star’s attitude towards Palestine and war in general. At one point, she steps out of the character of Israel to challenge the Starlet, playing Israel’s father, who has just told his son that the Arab settlements smell because they burn their rubbish with sheep’s dung. They do this, he says, because they are Arabs. “Is it because they are Arabs?” Star demands. “Or is it because they are in Israeli occupied territory and the Israeli bin men will not collect their rubbish?” Rebellious Rebecca looks murderous: “You wrote for me this text,” she mutters. Star is forced to admit that she did.
Playing with the gender as well as the nationality of the central characters makes the story feel general and specific all at once, while the whole thing builds to a climax that shows that, in spite of all the trappings and the dramatics, Theatre Ad Infinitum’s intention here is simply to tell a story that must to be told. This is powerful, daring theatre that will haunt you. A true original, it’s possible there’s never been anything quite like it – and for all its faults, Ballad of the Burning Star demands to be seen.
Ballad of the Burning Star can be seen at 17.15 at Pleasance Courtyard, every day until 26th August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.