Wrestling With Identity at the Edinburgh Festival

Questions of nationhood, identity and belonging loom large in three politically themed productions at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The tagline for this year’s edition is “community over chaos,” and there was plenty of both in “Thrown,” a National Theater of Scotland production running at the Traverse Theater through Aug. 27.

Written by Nat McCleary and directed by Johnny McKnight, it’s a sentimental comedy about five women from Glasgow who travel to the Scottish countryside to compete in a backhold wrestling tournament. In this folk sport, indigenous to Scotland, competitors are initially locked into a clamp-like hug, before trying to wrestle each other to the ground. It dates back more than a thousand years, and the escapade is a kind of pilgrimage for the characters as they seek to connect with their national heritage. Along the way they playfully dissect what it means to be Scottish, reeling off some serviceable — if not terribly original — gags about haggis, kilts and “Braveheart.”

Personality clashes emerge. Jo (Adiza Shardow), who is mixed race, and Chantelle (Chloe-Ann Taylor), who is white, are both working class and have been best pals since their school days, whereas Imogen (Efé Agwele), who is Black, was expensively educated and is new on the scene. When Imogen encourages Jo to take a greater interest in racial politics, this puts a strain on Jo and Chantelle’s friendship. Chantelle resents Imogen for boiling everything down to race and vents her frustration at being seen as privileged, simply because she is white. Imogen, in turn, points out that her affluent upbringing has not protected her from racism. They are both right, of course, and their circular squabbling brings home the absurdity of pitting different types of oppression against each other.

Lesley Hart is boisterously engaging as the group’s intense coach, Pam, but the star of the show is Maureen Carr, who plays Helen, the most unlikely of the five wrestlers. Diminutive in stature and older than the rest of the gang, she is a fish out of water who Carr plays with winning geniality. Helen provides moral support to Pam when she reveals her struggles with her gender identity and delivers the play’s defining monologue: a positive message of unity through celebrating difference.

Pam explains that the play’s title denotes the feeling helplessness in the split second when you realize you’re about to lose a wrestling match. The sport is a metaphor for personal struggle, and the team, of course, is a metaphor for the Scottish nation. It’s heartwarming stuff, but heavy-handedly allegorical.

“Dusk,” a show that the Brazilian theater maker Christiane Jatahy developed with the Swiss company Comédie de Genève, is more intellectually ambitious, but similarly flawed. Its protagonist, a young undocumented migrant called Graça (Julia Bernat), takes a job with a French-speaking theater troupe that is working on a stage adaptation of the Lars Von Trier movie “Dogville.”

Graça claims to have fled Brazil as a political refugee, and the troupe’s members believe they are doing a good turn by hiring her, but relations sour when troubling stories emerge about her history. The women in the group become nasty as they suspect Graça has designs on their partners, and one male colleague, a naturalized citizen, takes against her because she reminds him of his own past experience as a hated outsider. The dynamic tips into exploitation and abuse, both psychological and sexual.

Jatahy is known for work that blends the conventions of theater and cinema. Here, the onstage action is recorded by a camcorder synced up to a large screen displaying close-up footage in real time. This is occasionally interspersed with prerecorded footage that differs jarringly from what’s happening on the stage. The intention is to discombobulate the audience, and it does. The trouble, however, is that the big screen ultimately overshadows the actors’ in-the-flesh presence, as the eye is continually drawn upward. One might as well be at the movies.

Running at the Royal Lyceum Theater through Aug. 27, “Dusk” is a provocative and pointedly bleak allegory of liberal hypocrisy. The central concept is strong, but the play is let down by overkill, especially in not one, but two, graphic depictions of sexual violence. When, after the second, the fictional troupe’s director (played by Matthieu Sampeur) earnestly agonizes over the ethics of storytelling, we detect a none-too-subtle attempt to pre-empt criticisms that “Dusk” trades too heavily on shock value. (Reader, it does.)

The final 30 minutes of this 90-minute production are spent laboring the message of the first hour, culminating in a catastrophically unnecessary audience-facing lecture from Graça on xenophobia, gendered violence and the rise of the far right. The applause at the end of the show was damningly restrained.

A refreshing antidote to that production’s audiovisual clutter came in an exquisite production of Euripides’ “Trojan Women,” by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea. (The final performance of its three-show run is Aug. 11.) Set in the immediate aftermath of the decade-long Trojan War, it portrays the women of Troy as they await their imminent subjugation by the Greeks, who, having killed the Trojan menfolk, intend to take the women as wives or slaves.

The director, Ong Keng Sen, and the playwright, Bae Sam-sik, have done a fine job of reimagining this tale, which is mostly told through the medium of Pansori, a Korean genre of musical storytelling in which singing is accompanied by drumming. The propulsive pounding of the drum lends the songs a certain martial quality, which combines with the mournful tones of a zither and the singers’ plaintive laments to produce a powerful blend of sorrow and defiance. Kim Kum-mi delivers a vocal performance of remarkable intensity as the Trojan queen Hecuba, and Yi So-yeon is arresting as the fey clairvoyant Cassandra.

The splendid set, by Cho Myung-hee is all the more imposing for its elegant simplicity. The Trojan women emerge, clad in white, from a strange, otherworldly tunnel flanked by two golden staircases; at various points, the structure is brought to life with elaborate lighting effects to evoke fire and sea.

Euripides’s play dates from 415 B.C., but its enduring resonance is all too obvious as we look around the world today and reflect, for example, on the anniversary of the genocide by ISIS of the Yazidi people of Syria and Iraq — and the subsequent sexual enslavement of hundreds of Yazidi women — which began nine years ago this month; or the mounting evidence of sexual violence by Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Hecuba’s howl of anguish — “Destiny is drunk, the gods are blind!” — is a lament for the ages, a visceral and succinct protest against the abject cruelty of war.

Edinburgh International Festival
Through Aug. 28 at various venues in Edinburgh; eif.co.uk.