Theatre review: Tabula Rasa, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

IT'S both strange and fitting that this new collaboration between Vanishing Point Theatre Company and the Scottish Ensemble should open on the weekend of Remembrance Day, the moment in the year when our society stages its huge annual effort to take some meaning from the deaths of those lost in war. For at the core of this show - directed, designed and co-written by Vanishing Point's Matthew Lenton - there is a steely and courageous determination not to soften the fact of death by creating around it a narrative of meaning and resolution, where there may well be no such thing.
Tabula Rasa PIC: Hugh CarswellTabula Rasa PIC: Hugh Carswell
Tabula Rasa PIC: Hugh Carswell

Tabula Rasa, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

On a dark stage shared at first only with Scottish Ensemble pianist Sophie Rahman, the actor and co-writer of the show Pauline Goldsmith, in a brilliant red dress, takes on the character of a woman telling the story of her friend Peter - who died in hospital of a brain tumour - and of his strange funeral. At the end of the first part of the story, a single violinist enters, playing Arvo Part’s Fratres; and so, over 90 minutes, the show unfolds, episodes from the story of Peter alternating with increasingly intense musical performances of Fratres, Spiegel Im Spiegel and Tabula Rasa itself, until a climactic moment in the first movement of Tabula Rasa when, with the Scottish Ensemble playing brilliantly at full strength, Goldsmith rises from her chair and goes to stand among them, seeming to try to merge herself into the music.

In the end, the intensity, passion and artistry of the Ensemble’s musical performance dominates this show to such an extent that it’s difficult to see the dramatic and visual elements as much more than a framework that enables us to experience that intensity and quality of performance afresh, from an unusual angle. The sheer lack of glamour in Peter’s story, though - the ugly changes in his personality caused by the tumour, the fact that he loses his hearing and cannot in the end even take solace in music - forces us, like Goldsmith’s character, to make our own journey into the heart of the sound, and into its intense and beautiful conversation between human consciousness and the universe. And if the music of Arvo Part may not always be able to comfort the dying, there seems no doubt, here, that it can bring solace to the living, as they accompany their friends and loved ones to the brink of oblivion.

*At the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 11 November; then at Eden Court, Inverness, 16 November, and Tramway, Glasgow, 22-24 November.