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Ballad of the Burning Star

WHAT: Ballad of the Burning Star
WHEN: February 17 – March 2, 2014
WHERE: Battersea Arts Centre (Lavender Hill, SW11 5TN)
RUNTIME: 80 minutes (no intermission)
WHO: Theatre Ad Infinitum
PRICE: £12-15

OUR RATING: Chance It!

A cabaret extravaganza about Israel-Palestine? We know, we can sense your skepticism, but Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Ballad of the Burning Star packs a punch through drama, humour and a new take on the reality that is the Middle East conflict. Hosted by the talented Nir Paldi, who plays your cabaret MC named Star, this all-singing all-dancing review of the horrors war brings to all it touches reminds us that even in the bleakest times art will prevail.

'Ballad of the Burning Star'

‘Ballad of the Burning Star’

Adam: In dealing with controversial subjects, especially war, one must be extremely careful in the arts. Performing arts, though a perfect vehicle for the conveyance of a stylised version of conflict, often blur the lines between reality and fiction, truth and fantasy. We live in a television age that brings us war on a daily basis to our sitting-rooms, making us aware, but always disconnected from, the actual event. I am pleased to say that Ballad bridges the gap between stylisation and reality perfectly, providing a thoroughly riveting experience.

Theatre Ad Infinitum's 'Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star'. Photo by Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star’. Photo by Alex Brenner

Our drag diva Star tells the story of the life of an Israeli boy coming of age. Directing a troupe of troops, key moments are reenacted, replete with laughter and silent horror. Sometimes devastating, sometimes challenging and always cabaret, the audience experiences life at an individual level so often lost in tales of armed hostilities.

This show has been challenged in the past as being anti-Israel (especially during it’s run in Edinburgh). But it is clearly more nuanced than people give it credit for. Above all, Ballad is about the undeniably negative effect war has on both sides, whether the combatants are soldiers or non-state actors. In a way, this cabaret is as much about healing as about conflict – and choosing to move on towards a more peaceful future.

Alicia: One thing’s for sure – Ballad of the Burning Star is not lacking in talent, and the most lasting impression I had for the entire performance was awe at how physically exhausting the choreography was, and how tight the ensemble work was along with it (both with and without the charming/formidable Nir Paldi). This pairs well with the company’s mission for harnessing the universal language of the body in their performance. The skillful musicianship of Adam Pleeth was also a delightful component and really brought the story to life.

Theatre Ad Infinitum's 'Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star'. Photo by Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star’. Photo by Alex Brenner

Yet, there were two fatal flaws in this production that left me disconnected and wanting for something more. The first was the relationship between the cast and the audience. The performance was intimate and powerful, but sitting on a steep rake in the lovely BAC building – well, even sitting a few metres away was too far. Looking down on the actors and the action felt terribly inappropriate, and I know I would have got a lot more out of the entire affair if the set up was actually, well, more cabaret! The second problem was the voice level and speed of the script…I couldn’t understand key parts of the narrative, and because of this, no matter how versed in this political history I may or may not be, I completely lost my way numerous times, which took me entirely out of the show over and over again.

Theatre Ad Infinitum's 'Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star'. Photo by Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star’. Photo by Alex Brenner

There were highlights of course, one specific evocative moment being the song of the history of Jewish persecution, over which Nir Paldi adds some biting remarks. And the gradual transformation of Paldi from Diva to Dictator (/victim?) is exactly what you might ask for at this kind of satirical cabaret. However, despite the fascinating mismatch between the show’s script and form and the company’s worthy vision for these types of global stories, I left the show mostly unsatisfied.

Final Thoughts: A wonderful pairing of politics and parody, Ballad of the Burning Star will entertain and educate. Certain choices in the staging and voice-projection unfortunately let this production down, but we are sure these could be corrected in the future.

P.S.: For an optimistic and thorough treatment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we recommend Israel / Palestine by Alan Dowty. Some good background if you’d like to learn more after viewing the performance.

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