Ballad of the Burning Star, the latest show from chameleonic theatre company Theatre Ad Infinitum, opens with a bomb warning. It’s an explosive statement of intent from a group of theatremakers who were last seen wordlessly exploring love and loss in gentle mime show Translunar Paradise. Ballad, a blistering satirical cabaret that provocatively examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is about as far away as Theatre Ad Infinitum could get from the moving tale of a grieving widower which propelled them to worldwide success. As co-artistic director Nir Paldi says of the company, “it would be very hard to say ‘ah, they do this’”.
Ballad is very much Paldi’s project; as he explains, he and fellow artistic director George Mann take it in turns to lead the company’s shows. The group of Lecoq graduates “want to constantly be doing different things and different styles”, boasting a back catalogue that ranges from reinventions of classical myths to creative explorations of depression and love. Ballad, however, is by far and away their most ambitious production to date. It emerged as a result of Paldi’s need to find a way of talking about his experiences of growing up in Israel and took a number of years to find its current form. The difficulty, as Paldi quickly discovered, was in finding a theatrical metaphor that could contain the many sensitive complexities of the political situation in Israel.
“I really felt that I needed some mechanism to distance it from myself and to make it clear to the audience that as a theatremaker I’m conscious of the complexity in quite a declarative way,” Paldi explains carefully. The show began life as a straightforward autobiographical monologue, but both Paldi and Mann sensed that the material needed a different vehicle. This arrived in the form of drag, an instinctive artistic choice that Paldi says he simply thought “would be really fun”, but which developed into a multi-layered theatrical device. Paldi thus occupies the centre of the show as the larger-than-life Star, a fabulous but bullying cabaret host, supported by a troupe of dancing “Starlets”.
“The nuances were found later as the metaphor became clearer and clearer,” Paldi reflects. “The relationship between Star and her co-performers; how she occupies the stage; how she occupies her co-performers and bullies them and manipulates them against each other; how she treats the audience. The metaphor that started appearing – this is not necessarily what the audience perceives, but it’s what I was working with – is the audience as judges judging the two parties, Star and her Starlets, Israel and Palestine being played by these two bodies in the space. It was a discovery; it wasn’t a decision that was made.”
Discoveries of this kind often emerge from the stylistic decisions imposed on Theatre Ad Infinitum’s creative process. The first thing the company looks for when starting to research a show is a form that will work for the subject matter in question – mime for Translunar Paradise, cabaret for Ballad. This then establishes the limits of the piece, allowing the work of making the performance to take place within those limits. “It’s a constraint, but actually it’s a creative constraint, so that’s the thing that allows you to start working,” says Paldi, echoing the words of co-artistic director Mann.
In the case of Ballad, however, the company was also working with other creative challenges. Chief among these was the dilemma of how to begin exploring such fraught political terrain. “The story that I wanted to talk about and the theme that I wanted to raise in this piece were fairly clear,” Paldi tells me, “it was just how the hell do you do that, how do you speak about it without sounding banal and obvious or very one-sided?”
In resolving this question, the role of work in progress showings and audience feedback in Theatre Ad Infinitum’s process became more vital than ever. Paldi is enthusiastic about the virtues of testing work on audiences during its development, explaining that “it just gives you such a strong image of where you are”. It was these early audiences who pushed Paldi and his creative team to go further with the piece, encouraging them to make the show increasingly provocative. With this in mind, Paldi meticulously researched the viewpoints and arguments from both extremes, daring to make Ballad potentially inflammatory but determined to avoid becoming one-sided.
Of course, no show as provocative as Ballad of the Burning Star could expect to emerge unscathed. The production’s Edinburgh Fringe premiere, while attracting critical acclaim and winning the ensemble an award from The Stage, also faced its fair share of censure. What Paldi was encouraged by in these attacks, however, was the even balance of the anger directed towards the show. “After one show I would be encountered by two different people, sometimes at the same time, and they would tell me ‘that felt really one-sided towards Israel’, or ‘that felt really one-sided towards the Palestinians’, and these conversations would happen almost every day.”
The intensity of these responses vindicates Paldi’s feeling that this is a subject that needs to be talked about – “the whole point was to talk,” he says emphatically. When it comes to his own role in these discussions, however, he is more ambivalent. “I still sometimes find it very hard to …” Paldi trails off, pausing for a moment. “It’s so complicated, so it’s very hard for me to hold a very firm opinion.” He insists that he does not want to be speaking directly to audiences about politics, adding, “I’m not a politician, I’m not very good at it.”
While he is pleased that Battersea Arts Centre and Dialogue will be running discussions alongside the event when it comes to London, Paldi does not necessarily feel that it is his responsibility to offer a space for these conversations to take place. “I don’t know if I see it as my responsibility to provide the place for discussion; it’s more to provoke the discussion,” he explains. It is more important to Paldi that his art speaks for itself: “I’m making a piece and this is what I think.”
As Theatre Ad Infinitum also begin work on their new show – the company are nothing if not multi-taskers – they are still keen to “reinvent ourselves every time”. Light, which will premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is different again from Translunar Paradise and Ballad of the Burning Star. This new piece, which Paldi describes as “George’s baby”, is inspired by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the NSA and by a dream of Mann’s about a “totalitarian, futuristic society”. Drawing on sci-fi influenced aesthetics, it will examine “what happens when technology is being misused by human beings and it falls into the wrong hands” – all without words.
As a commission from the London International Mime Festival, the creative decision to turn once again to mime is appropriate, although the challenge of tackling these complex ideas wordlessly is a formidable one. Paldi explains that the company have been encouraged by the early responses of audiences, who have told them to trust the power of their storytelling, allowing the bulk of the show to develop within the self-imposed “creative constraint”. The question that Theatre Ad Infinitum are now grappling with is the one that continues to guide their work: “how can we say the most interesting and provocative and complex things with this form?”
Ballad of the Burning Star runs at Battersea Arts Centre 17th February – 8th March.
Main photo: Alex Brenner.