In Theatre Ad Infinitum’s latest offering, stars are everywhere. In the name of the show and its narrator, on the garish gold costumes, fixed prominently to the set. Stars as both motifs of showbiz glamour and as the Star of David, attached to the chests of audience members with playful significance. A badge of persecution and pride all at once.
This heavily loaded slice of symbolism begins to conjure a sense of the knotty and conflicted nature of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s blistering new show. To describe Ballad of the Burning Star as a drag cabaret show about Israel feels both hugely reductive and potentially offensive, yet these are both reactions that the piece intelligently and sometimes dangerously toys with. It knows that its subject matter is explosive – in every sense of that word – and so it allows itself to detonate with ever more furious force. Opening with a bomb warning, this fearless statement of intent sets the tone for the difficult, daring, dazzling 80 minutes that follow.
The show, written, directed and performed by Nir Paldi, wraps a personal story of inner conflict within an audacious satirical cabaret, connecting one individual’s struggle with the split identity of a whole nation. The narrative, told by our host Star and her troupe of high-kicking Starlets, follows a young boy growing up in Israel, grappling with the idea of being both oppressed and oppressor. With stunning ambition, the scope of the show also expands to encompass the entire history of Jewish persecution, an attempt that is deliberately set up to fail but nonetheless captures the crushing burden of history carried on Israeli shoulders. In one song – the bluntly titled ‘Jewish Persecution List’ – every instance of oppression across hundreds of years is set to galloping music. While the litany goes on, Star interjects and antagonises, suggesting that audience members step out to grab a drink; we’re going to be here for a while. The unimaginable enormity of this horrific history, the piece daringly suggests, is both terrifying and tedious.
Other musical numbers pack a similar punch, pairing cabaret hall glitz with implicit, contained aggression. Every move seems underscored with violence, every lyric like a bullet. As much as it fiercely challenges, however, the show is also committed in its attempt to entertain. It’s packed with laughs and joyously revels in its own theatricality, while the performers execute every last song with relentless energy. The enjoyment offered by this unapologetic spectacle is also deeply and deliberately problematic, placing its audience in a position of pleasure and discomfort, in which laughs are often barbed and the mood can pivot as sharply as Star’s conflicted opinions. Nothing is safe or stable; even the language in which this story is told is unreliable and potentially incendiary, with a whole volatile debate contained in the choice between “liberated” and “invaded”.
The whole piece is gripped firmly in the fist of Paldi’s increasingly authoritarian Star, who is desperately grasping onto a narrative that threatens to escape her control. Paldi himself is utterly extraordinary, quivering with barely suppressed rage while doling out the charm, heavily made-up eyelashes fluttering at the audience. Bit by bit, however, the make-up cracks and the mask slips. As the shockwaves shudder outwards, layers of glittering theatricality are steadily stripped back, until the raw, naked wound beneath is devastatingly exposed.