Meeting Nir Paldi upstairs at the Southbank Centre, I’m not entirely convinced I’m going to recognise him. After all, the last time I saw him, five months ago at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was buried in gold lamé to play Star, the abrasive drag queen at the centre of Ballad of the Burning Star.
Described as a drag cabaret musical about Israel, Ballad certainly didn’t lack ingenuity, and its unusual approach to one of the most controversial, emotive subjects of the last century won plaudits for Theatre Ad Infinitum, the daring company behind it. First and foremost a success in its own right, Ballad was also seen as a startlingly different follow-up to the company’s previous show, Translunar Paradise, a delicate, wordless exploration of grief. “We want to keep surprising our audiences,” Paldi confirms. “So they’ll think – they are doing this?!”
Unusually, the company has two artistic directors, Paldi himself and George Mann, who take it in turns to lead on their shows. Mann wrote, directed and starred in Translunar, and Paldi did the same for Ballad. “We’re very different, George and I, very different with what we want to make,” Paldi tells me. But he’s keen to underline that “each time, although one of us takes the lead on a production, we are very much involved with both – so it’s not different companies, it’s the same company. In a sense it’s not a separate creation, even if I’m leading it and it was born from my vision, or vice versa, it’s both of our creations.”
In conversation and outside the gold lamé, Paldi is a disarming figure: he has the quiet thoughtfulness of an academic, which gives way suddenly to moments of theatricality. Whenever he assists a story by slipping into Star’s voice or mannerisms, it makes me do a double-take.
Paldi is Israeli himself, though with the international outlook typical of a Lecoq graduate (Mann was in the year above him), and he had long wanted to tackle the subject of his homeland. “I had so much pain growing up and so much hopelessness,” he says, without a hint of self-pity in so saying. Perhaps the lack of a self-dramatising streak is unsurprising: Israel, Paldi tells me, is a place where “death is talked about very openly” and the military service, violence and loss experienced by Ballad’s central character were chosen for being indicative of the “simple, classic” experiences of his peers. “These are the things that we grow up with as Israelis,” he says, “just like… I wouldn’t say it’s less special, but it’s – it’s like eating fish and chips. It’s something that happens to you.”
Beginning work on the show that was to become Ballad of the Burning Star, Paldi and Mann shut themselves a way for several weeks. While Mann watched, Paldi stood alone on stage and talked: “I was just telling stories and it was an extremely emotional process, talking about history – things that had happened in Israel during my lifetime or before it – and explaining all the different contexts for everything so it made sense to someone else. Sometimes I would stand there, literally just stand there, and George would be like: start! Do something, move, talk… But I was just frozen, in tears.”
Surprising, then, that the show they ended up with is, for the most part, so boisterous and energetic. Paldi quickly realised he needed to move away from his own experiences, motivated partly by the need to throw off the restrictions of doing an autobiographical show and partly by the concern that “maybe my life isn’t interesting enough!” The urge to free himself of his own history and even his own opinions is how “little by little, Star started coming into mind, this character that was absolutely free to say whatever the fuck she wants and if you were offended she’d say, ‘Aw, that’s really sad that you’re offended, but I still think that’… Which is obviously slightly superficial, but it’s the repression, not the pain that is bubbling underneath.”
If the leap from straight storytelling to drag cabaret seems unexpected, there’s method in the madness. In his view, Paldi tells me, Ballad “is about boundaries… a man in drag is an interesting way of making people think about boundaries: is it a man or a woman?” He’s also surrounded Star with an all-female dance cabaret troupe, the Starlets: “casting the troupe, the soldiers, as female, I was playing with that – and emphasising the fact that I am a man in a dress and not a woman by having five very feminine performers on stage.”
Aided and abetted by the Starlets – “They’re trying to rebel, she’s oppressing even harder, she’s manipulating them against each other, performing for the audience as if they are the other countries of the world judging us, who’s right and who’s wrong…” – we are told the story of a little boy called Israel, growing up in the country that shares his name. There are layers of narrative complexity in here, with Paldi playing Star, who is herself playing the young boy, while the other performers multi-role as Israel’s family and classmates. Still, in spite of the huge amount of thought the creative team have put into tackling this contentious subject, it was inevitable that there would be some controversy.
During one Edinburgh Fringe performance, an audience member grabbed the back of Paldi’s dress and began vocally protesting against a statement that he had, in fact, misheard. Paldi was able to use Star to get out of it (“Is that right sweetheart? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts but I have a show to get on with…”), but after they finished the performance, Mann came to his dressing room and asked if he was okay.
“I was like, ‘yeah I’m fine, what do you mean?’ Because I thought I’d handled the dress-grabbing quite well. He said, ‘Did you hear what he just shouted?’” During the curtain call, it emerged, the audience member, “had stood up and shouted, ‘This was one-sided, it was propaganda, I just want to tell you,’ and somebody else said, ‘No mate, it was a piece of theatre, so sit down’.”
In spite of an overwhelmingly positive response to the show, there were still, Paldi tells me, quite a few such “intense reactions”. Though concerned about being seen to brush people’s responses aside, he nonetheless maintains, “if we’d wanted to have a debate, I could’ve phoned people and said, ‘let’s talk’ – but actually I took years to construct this thing, to communicate something very specific. So that’s why I had to stop it.” And is he worried about more of the same when he takes the show on tour this year? Luckily, with Star around, he doesn’t need to be: for all her flaws, “She protects us – me and the audience.”
Ballad of the Burning Star is currently on tour, including a three-week run at Battersea Arts Centre 17 Feb – 8 March. For more information, visit Theatre Ad Infinitum’s website.