A comedy of betrayal illustrates how privacy and freedom of expression are under threat in today’s surveillance society, writes Joyce McMillan
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
The Collector ★★★★
Gilded Balloon (Venue 14)
Sochi 2014 ★★★
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
The Trial Of Jane Fonda ★★★
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20)
HUMAN RIGHTS take many forms, including the much-abused right to life itself. There’s a sense, though, in which freedom of expression is the key to all the rest, the main means we have for challenging and reforming the world we live in; and it’s because the writer, comedian and political activist Mark Thomas so fully understands this truth that his new one-hour solo show, Cuckooed, playing at the Traverse, represents such a vital contribution to this year’s Fringe, and to the general debate about whether, in the name of security, we are losing vital rights and freedoms in the UK.
The play revolves around a series of events which took place just over a decade ago, when Thomas was heavily involved in the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and when he and his friends around the organisation – a group brought to life by a series of warm and lively filmed interviews, presented on screens pulled out of the filing-cabinets that surround Thomas on stage – learned that one member of the group, much loved by all of them, had in fact been a BAe Systems mole and informer.
All that Thomas does, over an hour, is to make a brilliant job of telling this sad tale of activism and betrayal, and of a friendship lost. In Emma Callander’s fluent production, though, he does it in irresistible style, funny, self-deprecating, infinitely accessible, eloquent in its use of film and video, but never overwhelmed by it. And by the end of the show, he is asking hard, passionate questions to which every citizen of the UK should have an answer; about where exactly we draw the line, in a surveillance state that now abuses the privacy of us all, partly to protect us – apparently – against campaigners like Mark Thomas, and against the better part of ourselves.
The image of western nations betraying their own best principles is also central to Henry Naylor’s new play The Collector, at the Gilded Balloon; but here, the main target of Naylor’s scorn is the United States and its conduct in Iraq. The play tells its tale of a young pro-western prison translator, and his tragic destruction, through three linked monologues, brilliantly delivered by William Reay as the prison commander, Lesley Harcourt as the young translator’s US army colleague, and Ritu Arya as his fiancée, Zoya.
The heart and soul of the play, though, lies in Zoya’s story, the narrative of a young woman who begins as a free spirit and indie music fan falling in love with a man who shares her dreams, and ends by being sold into the keeping of a warlord as little more than a domestic slave. This is a terrible tale about the fate of young women in war, with a shattering ring of truth; and it’s made all the more poignant by the youthful lightness of spirit that Zoya and her man manage to sustain for so long, in an increasingly desperate situation.
There’s the same alternation between blithe, youthful optimism and a darkening political scene in Fullfuse Theatre’s Sochi 2014, co-presented with the King’s Head at Pleasance Courtyard. Researched and shaped by Tess Berry-Hart, Sochi 2014 is a 70-minute documentary piece about homosexuality in Russia, culminating in a fierce warning about the rising tide of anti-gay legislation and violence amid which the Sochi Winter Olympics took place, despite calls for a boycott.
Working in a small space at the Pleasance Caves, John Brooke’s young company of five performers present the material in a direct, well-choreographed style that sometimes looks like an exercise in the dramatic delivery of documentary material, complete with a screen projecting key facts. If the performance style is occasionally a little flat, though, there are moments when the company achieve a real sense of ensemble power and passion, as they face the truth that many who began their journey into an openly gay life with western-style levels of style and optimism are now facing exile, or trying to creep back into the closet, broken, defeated, and excluded from society.
All of which provides a thought-provoking context for one of the largest set-piece political dramas on this year’s Fringe, which echoes Mark Thomas in raising key questions about a free citizen’s right to dissent from the policies of her own government. Terry Jastrow’s The Trial Of Jane Fonda is based on a real-life incident in Waterbury, Connecticut during the filming of the 1990 film Stanley And Iris, when Vietnam veterans protested against the presence of the film’s star Jane Fonda, on the grounds that in her role as an anti-war activist, she had visited North Vietnam in 1972, and had even been filmed laughing as she sat on an enemy anti-aircraft gun.
The play envisages a meeting in which Fonda tries to explain her actions to a group of furious veterans, gathered in a church hall; it is an immensely powerful dramatic situation, with echoes of the great courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, in which Jane’s father Henry Fonda so famously starred. Sadly, though – and despite the use of some fascinating archive news footage – Jastrow’s script and production never quite measure up to the potential of the story.
There are some powerful performances from the angry men who surround the actress, notably from Ian Virgo as a wheelchair-bound veteran. Anne Archer’s Jane, though, is a stiff, nervous-looking figure, her face half-obscured by a voluminous blonde wig; and a mere glance at the vitality of the Jane Fonda who appears on the film footage – confused, tired, beautiful, humorous, desperate for peace – reminds us how far this dramatised version of the woman falls short of the reality, not least in the rash, good-hearted political passion that drove her to North Vietnam, and then back again, to her angry and troubled homeland.
Cuckooed until 24 August. Today 8:30pm, more info
The Collector until 25 August. Today 4:30pm, more info
Sochi 2014 until 21 August. Today 12:50pm, more info
The Trial Of Jane Fonda until 24 August. Today 4:05pm, more info
Originally published in The Scotsman