Wednesday 14 July 2010

15 years on, Carmen Funebre is just as terrifying

Carmen Funebre (Teatr Biuro Podrozy; National Theatre) *****

I saw Carmen Funebre in 1995 in a school playground as part of the Edinburgh Festival. I was twelve at the time and it made a huge impression on me; dark, robed, hooded figures appearing out of nowhere at lightning speed with fire and whips, like demons. They were menacing and I've had vivid images of them ever since. But much of what the work was about was lost on me, and with the exception of those demons, which were burned onto my retinas, the memories were starting to fade.

Fifteen years later, the show, from Polish group Biuro Podrozy, is still a hit worldwide and is back on these shores at the National Theatre. My attention was drawn by a tweet from the NT highlighting last night's "priceless preview" (ie pay what you think it's worth) and at the very last minute, I shovelled down some food, grabbed my girlfriend and hurried down to Waterloo. It was a real impromptu trip. Would it be worth seeing again?

Subtle it ain't. While the events it's based on - the atrocities in Bosnia in the nineties - may not be foremost in people's minds in this country any longer, the horrors portrayed are universal. The ten-foot hooded demons scoured the audience and plucked out their victims, who were summarily beaten and gang-raped - the defiling of a woman superbly intimated by means of the contents of a bottle of wine. Refugees attempted to create normal lives for themselves and were soon harassed by the soldiers. The wounded dragged their way around the set, rattling coins in tins, seeking succour from the audience. There was none. The figure of Death prowled around the surrounding horrors, forking the flaccid imagery of the dead for the peasants to burn. Thunderous strings alternated with a cheerful accordion.

It's a universal commentary - although no comment is required; the images are simple and brutal. Having seen Carmen Funebre more than half my life ago, I can say that it's just as terrifying as an adult. But it resonates even more.

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