“Ballad of the Burning Star”

at Pleasance Dome, Friday 9th August 2013

*Originally written for Culture Wars*

There is no way of accurately or wholly representing the Israeli-Arab conflict on stage. The subject is so fraught with history, with emotion and with complications that there is no way it can be solved with a singular theatre show. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s The Ballad of the Burning Star, however, attempts to tackle some of the central questions around the Israeli occupation and Palestinian violence, and on the whole is successful. By pushing through taboos, it suggests that the fear inherent in both sides is what keeps the war going, and that a little compassion would go a long way.

This fear is present from the top of the show, as a female voice informs us that, because this is a show about Israel, someone may enter the auditorium halfway through the show with a bomb. “It probably won’t happen” we are told, even though apparently, “there have been incidents in the past”. And though our rational selves would like to fight against this, there is a small part of us which tenses in fear at these words, as we experience first hand what it’s like to be under threat.

The show then begins proper, as our host for the evening, Star (Nir Paldi in drag, who also wrote and directed the piece) enters and sings a song accompanied by ‘Camp David’ on the drums before welcoming her five backing dancers known as ‘Starlets’. Instantly, we delve into the rhetoric of ‘settlements’ and ‘liberation’ as the discourse surrounding the situation is sent up, exposing each side’s reliance on language as a means of oppression.

The story itself, told with full-throttle energy and constant dancing by Star and her Starlets, is that of a young boy named Israel who grows up surrounded by violence and conflict. Paldi’s character acts as the boy, with his girls (in knowingly sexualised military garb) standing in for family and friends. It all comes to head in a startling moment at the end of the piece, when a choice is made by Israel which has been influenced by every moment in his life up until now. It’s a pretty stunning coup, and leaves you speechless in trying to work out its implications.

Paldi’s presentation in drag is key to the central argument of the piece, which suggests the arguments for and against Israel are wrapped up in a disguise which fails to get to the heart of the issue. All this flair and pizazz distracts from the story Star and the girls are telling, as the focus becomes style rather than substance. Sequences like “The Persecution Song” and “Internal Conflict” smack of propaganda, of manipulative rather than intellectual discussions, but we see that they are far inferior to the naked truth seen at the show’s climax.

Naturally, one’s enjoyment of this piece is going to be determined by personal beliefs on its subject matter, but there’s no denying it offers an almost violently balanced view of the conflict, suggesting that both sides are at fault and that the problem will persist unless children aren’t instilled with fear of the Other from a young age. On the face of it, The Ballad of the Burning Star is a seemingly broad and vulgar presentation of a highly complex subject, but in fact there is a lot more depth here than meets the eye, in this sharp and nuanced critique of a war which forever feels completely unnecessary.

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