I asked a friend if he wanted to come see a show with me. I described its premise—it’s an early work by Polish theatre company Teatr Biuro Podrozy about the impact of war on civilians, partly inspired by the experiences of Bosnian refugees. He looked at me like I was about to play a trick on him. Remarkably, it turned out he’d been to Carmen Funebre in a tarmacked playground when it first debuted in Edinburgh in 1995 and remembered it as one of the most emotional things he’d ever seen on stage.
Showing this year as part of a four-night-only run alongside a full run of the company’s new production, Silence, we went along—he, to see how well Carmen Funebre (Funeral Song) had held up in the intervening 23 years; me, to see it for the first time.
In a cobbled square behind the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, we stood around three edges of a square marked out on the ground in white masking tape. The lights dimmed and two masked centurions on stilts emerged from the darkness. Cracking loud whips, they coerced five ordinary-looking people from the audience and proceeded to terrorise them in a variety of imaginative methods, before ultimately destroying, well, everything.
Although the component parts—the figure of death on stilts, the orange-skirted centurions and their whips, the fires everything and the pungent smells of petrol and red wine—could so easily have tipped over into the ridiculous, the clarity of the production’s imagery results in a sophisticated work, subtle and moving. Carmen Funebre perfectly encapsulates the notion that a suggestive sketch can be far more powerful than an explicit display—their treatment of a rape scene is particularly harrowing, all the more so for its not explicitly being a rape scene.
With Silence, the company have also brought a new production to this year’s Fringe and the contrast could not be more marked or more disappointing. Although in its depiction of victims of conflict there is a thread of connection to Carmen Funebre, to which it is billed as a sequel, Silence is far less coherent than its predecessor.
A supposed meditation on the story of refugees ‘caught in a spiral of violence with dreams of escape’, Silence lacks the sharp sense of narrative and deeply crafted visual story-telling that holds its predecessor together. Because of this, it also means that the striking images constructed by the company – death on stilts, again, or a burned-out bus—don’t pack the same emotional punch. Don’t pack any emotional punch, really. Compared to Carmen Funebre, watching Silence was like watching someone take the characters from a beloved novel and refashion them into a story that didn’t make any sense.
Silence is on at Pleasance until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.