Review: The Fever Chart, Trafalgar Studios 2

“If a pigeon named after your uncle dies, it can be quite disconcerting”

The Fever Chart is a curious thing: three short works by Naomi Wallace brought together by the Pilot Theatre company, all covering the ground of conflict and political tensions in the Middle East and the effect it has on everyday people, especially in forcing them to deal with grief. Presented by three actors covering different roles in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios, these works weren’t originally intended by Wallace to be performed together, and to be frank, it is not immediately clear why they should be.

The three stories are A State of Innocence, a meeting between an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian mother and a Russian/Jewish architect in an abandoned Gaza zoo; Between this Breath and You, an startling encounter between an Israeli nurse and a grieving Palestinian father in a West Jerusalem clinic with an unexpected connection; and The Retreating World, a painful account of an Iraqi conscript, coping with the loss of his best friend and the pigeons he kept in a country devastated by war and the continuing impact of sanctions.

It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but putting these separate entities together does not really pay off. There just isn’t enough time for each of the works to become dramatically engaging, for the characters to become meaningful, for the larger picture to appear. The writing is a strange mixture of the factual and the surreal, of poetic language and obtuse pronouncements, and when it is multiplied by three, the result is simply one of fragmentation. As a whole, they have no greater impact than they would as if they had been presented individually which ultimately begs the question why bother.

It may be subtitled Three Visions of the Middle East, but unfortunately the sequencing didn’t work for me in creating the necessary connectedness between the stories. In dealing with two consecutive Israeli/Palestinian stories, it feels like there’s some sense of continuity and indeed a kind of deeper understanding of some sort about the complexity of the relationship between the two. The final story then shifting to a post-Gulf War Iraq feels quite unlinked to what we have already seen which was a real shame as it was the most engaging of the three for me. Likewise stories one and three did both use the imagery of animals to represent the larger themes being discussed, especially in the oppression of people, but this being absent in the second means it’s not enough of a binding to hold these three playlets together.

It is attractively designed, with beautiful broken tiles and crumbling masonry nicely evoking the region simply rather than specific locations and the actors do manage to find moments of clarity in the opaque writing. Lisa Caruccio Came is particularly good as the sparky Israeli nurse whose brittle exterior barely hides the frailty within and the best performance of the evening for me was with Daniel Rabin’s Iraqi soldier, unencumbered with any other unfamiliar characters, his soliloquy was the most moving section of the whole shebang, struggling to maintain a quiet dignity in the face of a continued oppression and paying the horrific price for the decisions of a regime that he has little to do with.

Sometimes poetic, sometimes surreal, sometimes insightful, sometimes obscure: despite the best efforts of all involved, this is just too frustratingly disparate a collection of ideas to work well as either a dramatic exercise or an educational experience.

Running time: 85 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £2

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