Letters Home: Grid Iron Theatre Company @ Edinburgh International Book Festival

Review by Angus Sutherland | 20 Aug 2014

Just a minute or two into the bludgeoning that is Christos Tsiolkas’ Eve and Cain, it seemed as if it might be a gruelling night traipsing around Charlotte Square. Tsiolkas’ epistolary play is one of four such works commissioned for 2014’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. Each of the quartet’s parts is performed in its own space – hence the traipsing; typically in high-ceilinged Georgian front rooms.

Though Eve and Cain is instead set in a bare, car park-esque space just off the square. Ben Harrison, directing, and actors Charlene Boyd and Gavin Marshall certainly did their utmost to fill their surroundings. But Harrison’s mise-en-scène is crassly assembled. Real-life sand is complemented with a brass hula hoop, a tulle draped mattress and, for the audience to perch on, Ikea bedside tables. The backstage, computer screen blaring, was visible from most seats. Boyd and Marshall, doubling as the titular biblical duo and bondspeople – slave-messengers – writhe and yell and groan and tense their way through it, but Tsiolkas has given them too much – or too little, perhaps – to compensate for.

If this is all seeming one star-worthy, as opposed to the four you see hovering above, I assure you, this was the mood as we did our first bit of traipsing to performance two. But then the audience’s fortunes started to change. At the very least, we can say that the quality of art during Letters Home mirrors that on show throughout Edinburgh in the month of August. It varies starkly. Kei Miller’s England in a Pink Blouse, second in our group’s rotation, is thoughtful and understated. As the audience sits in airline seats – economy class – school friends Maxine and Nicky email between England and Jamaica, discussing the fortunes of a third friend, Marcus, who has emigrated to the UK and quickly, deliberately disappeared. There’s a lot crammed into Miller’s writing, but the focus is on sexual identity and relocation as a possible site for reinvention. Tim Reid’s video accompaniment, projected above the audience, augments the prose nicely.

Back out into the fading daylight, moving on to the square’s western frontier, we were next treated to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Details, which was the strongest piece of the night. The Nigerian’s fiction has earned her enormous renown. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was adapted for the big screen and released in the UK this year. Her third, Americanah, won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The author has even featured on a Beyoncé track. But Details is so quiet and brittle. From behind her celebrity mantle, Adichie has produced a work quietly seething with desire and agony, love and bitterness.

Rhoda Ofori-Attah and Muna Otaru star as same-sex lovers Oyin and Chisara, wedged apart by geography – the former has emigrated to the US, the latter remains in Nigeria – Oyin’s heterosexual marriage, and the West African state’s often-brutal sexual politics. We play witness to their emailed exchange. Here is a pair who, in Adichie’s words, never wanted the things they were supposed to want. Ofori-Attah and Otaru eek every last drop of longing from Adichie’s script. The former desperately squirms against the constraints of her marriage, all the while attempting to placate her lover. Otaru’s Chisara, in turn, responds with pained stoicism and censure. She, of course, is left alone to suffer the scrutiny of their native land. Director Joe Douglas’s set and blocking are keen and uncluttered, framing a work of tremendous power and beauty.

Kamila Shamsie’s War Letters occupies a more traditionally epistolary space than Pink Blouse and Details, in that it presents paper-and-pen letters, rather than their digital successors. Here the correspondents are Qasim and Wahid, voiced by Bhav Joshi and Adam Buksh. Their letters, imagined by Shamsie, date from 1916 and traverse a world at war, from the battlefields of France and Mesopotamia to Brighton and the mustard fields of the Punjab under British rule. There is no live action in War Letters, just as was the case in Pink Blouse. Filmmaker Alice Nelson has assembled an audio-visual piece blending live action and digital animation, aided by Lewis Gourley (motion graphics) and Zoe Irvine (sound design). Our protagonists shows how we’re still languishing in century-old blunders, and perhaps making many of the same blunders anew.

Letters Home runs at Edinburgh International Book Festival until 25 Aug at 8.45pm, in and around Charlotte Square