The Investigation

Fri 5th – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Tanjil Rashid

at 01:32 on 19th Aug 2011

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The eponymous investigation of Peter Weiss’s “documentary drama” ("with dance", adds the press release) is a Frankfurt war crimes trial. But what does a “documentary drama” entail? How does such a creature differ from an historical drama? Is it an attempt to stage history or use history as a stage? For sure, the latter would have made for a better play, but this was deliberately and defiantly the former. There is a school assembly feel as witnesses bear testimony to the horrors of the camps, reeling off statistics as if reading from a history textbook: 3.3 million dead in the gas chambers, 500 000 dead in the ghettos, 700 calories a day in Buchenwald. But I suppose that was the point. I neither noted down nor knew in advance those facts: they stuck in the mind. Oddly it was the most banal of them which distilled the most evil (I winced at the mention of potato peel soup) – perhaps I finally know what Hannah Arendt meant by the 'banality of evil'.

But if Peter Weiss is a history teacher, he is one with all the narrative flair of a Simon Schama or David Starkey (to say nothing of the camp gusto). Using drama to convey knowledge is a difficult task but the script frames the facts and details in convincing stories – a Jewish doctor who is forced to collaborate, or the psychological effect on survivors as they try to re-integrate into post-war German society. Moreover, there needn’t be a drama-history dichotomy; like all good drama, good history casts light on moral issues from all perspectives. The collaborators’ qualms and the redeeming guilt of Nazi criminals provide a perspective all too absent from popular history and fiction, which do no justice to the moral complexity of a situation where, say, Josef Mengele affectionately has sandpits built for children who wear jumpers knitted by his wife, even as he prepares to murder them.

But most originally, the incorporation of physical theatre brings to life the horrors, brings to life the death. Original, because the choreography consisted not merely of the morbid miming of the acts described, but also more nuanced narratives told through dance: the performers’ movements slow down and descend to the floor representing, perhaps, the decline of civilisation; children play clapping games while a skipping rope turns to a hangman’s noose – a potent and poignant evocation of Germany’s lost innocence, as well as a welcome influence of the symbolist theatre of the likes of Maurice Maeterlinck (or indeed late Chekhov).

Influences loom large in this play, but so deftly are they incorporated and so lightly are they worn that one might easily miss them. The Investigation is engaged in a highly-literate conversation with past representations of the Holocaust; a girl wears a dashing red coat as she is led to the slaughter, reminiscent of the famous girl-in-the-red-coat from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; a pitch-perfect piano score evokes the minor-key piano music that has become a quintessential feature of Holocaust films from Europa Europa to, of course, The Pianist; and the closing (and only) song in which all cast members join in recalls unmistakeably the eerie solemnity of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from the musical Cabaret.

But this conversation with the past goes much further. Didacticism has gone out of fashion (and this, make no mistake, was didactic – right down to the chalkboards at the back on which cast members occasionally noted down harrowing details). But there is a long tradition of plays whose primary purpose was to convey knowledge, such as medieval mystery and miracle plays or the passion plays, characteristically marked by antisemitism. Is this a Jewish rejoinder? There are hundreds of "revivals" in Edinburgh: revivals of plays. This flaunts a whole lot more chutzpah: a revival of a genre.

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Jonathan Grande

at 12:01 on 19th Aug 2011

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3Bugs Fringe Theatre’s The Investigation promises to present a ‘documentary drama’ on the stage, making use of ‘physical theatre’ and ‘contemporary dance’ alongside spoken dialogue to create a thought-provoking and highly moving piece. They deliver an episodic, repetitive and bland show that subscribes to all the worst (and frequently deserved) clichés associated with student physical theatre.

The biggest, and most dangerous, trap 3Bugs falls into is one of over-complication; they try to force home too strongly a point that speaks loudly by itself, and only muffle it in the process. Frequently, synchronised and stylised movement – from heads turning to sudden falling on the floor – is used in an attempt to accent key moments of dialogue. But the result is the dilution of the impact the text has. As they have recognised themselves in interview, ‘the words are so important’ in Peter Weiss’s script. Unfortunately, his words are only lost in a production that adds distractions at every turn.

How can we focus on the haunting recollections of unnamed Witness 1 when our eye is constantly caught by the unnecessary props being passed around in front? How can we listen to the defendant protect himself against an allegation of beating when the cast are noisily jumping up and down over an imaginary cane behind? Occasionally, the words do still find a way through: those of the witness who remembers himself and others being confined in a cell measuring three square foot, drinking urine, licking the walls and eating their own shoes in an attempt to quell their hunger and thirst, remain fresh in the mind. But they would be rendered even more harrowing were they not competing for attention with cast members seemingly tickling the witness as he stands in a trunk.

3Bugs misses the point with the physical theatre they have added into the piece. It should be used to compliment the text, arising seamlessly within or out of the words and action. In The Investigation, it feels forced, awkward and self-important, ending up competing with the words whilst creating no further meaning or atmosphere. The movement pieces don’t only prove distracting for the audience, but for the cast as well. It seems impossible for any of the cast to fully inhabit their characters and engage with the words they are speaking when they are constantly interrupted by the physical theatre work going on around them. The witness delivering a description of operations carried out on the sexual organs of women, for example, is unable to give such a haunting narrative the full attention it deserves while simultaneously engaging in an abstract simulation of those operations.

The piece is not helped by a lack of design. The costumes jar with the tone and style of the play, while the bright, open and static lighting design provides an obstacle to any feeling of intimacy or poignancy. There are some good ideas here – the original score is beautiful and should have been used more, and the chalkboards at the back of the stage, occasionally written on by the cast, could have proved an interesting idea if intelligently integrated into the piece as a whole.

But overall this is a naïve production that adds no new meaning to a well-trodden theme, becoming simply another casualty of the current fad for physical theatre.

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