Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 24 February 2018
There is nothing straightforward about David Leddy’s The Last Bordello for his Fire Exit company.
Not only are there layers within layers of meaning. But the meaning itself has textures to it, in a production which announces that it is playing with the already mercurial history of French literary enigma, Jean Genet, but which reveals elements that are much closer to home as it pulls back its shadowy curtains.
At the outset – on the first surface if you will – is a seedy bordello in the Gaza Strip in 1970. It’s about to be shut down by the authorities. Its five inhabitants fully expect it to be bulldozed in the morning and for them to end up on the street.
Into this evening of closure and remembering wanders Palestinian freedom fighter Mitri – 19 (he says) and in need of losing his virginity so that he can keep the respect of his brother.
But before he can do anything so straightforward, he must first persuade the strangely dominant Charwoman, Irma, to let him negotiate with the Madame and get the three working prostitutes to accept him as a client on a night for which more work is the last thing on their minds.
What they do intend, in this all white cavern, cluttered yet open, is a ritual unveiling of the grand myths of their profession. To provide stories of life and tell moral fables in the time of war…
And there is no denying that it is most beautifully conceived and told. From the tightly wound performances, building characters both within and on top of existing ones, to Becky Minto’s fine set that paints the stage with gauze and flashes crimson into hidden corners of her tight, curve-enhancing white costumes, there is utter control of every element.
It is also beautifully orchestrated by writer and director David Leddy. Nich Smith’s lighting at turns finds clear definition of the playing area and then shows how far it extends into the distance. And, combined with Danny Krass’s sound design, provides suitably unnerving, some might say psychedelic punctuation to the text.
The clear strength of the performances is that they convince you that the existing character being portrayed is the true one.
Whether Vari Sylvester’s Irma is conducting events from the shadows as the bordello’s charwoman or recalling her early life when she not only met Genet, but whored around Spain with him, there is a truth to her story, while her tough attitude is in control of the tarts and even her madam.
Helen McAlpine. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Unpicking Irene Allan’s portrayal of the high-handed Madam herself is rather more tricky. She has a brazen attack to her treatment of her workers, but – like managers the world over – has a tendency to not quite understand the consequences of her demands. Or to demand the wrong thing at just the wrong time.
As Mitri is persuaded to join in the group storytelling, the three whores have a stronger command of what is right. Helen McAlpine’s professional virgin, Darling, is a voluptuous, foul-minded character, ready to push her ideas far beyond the limits of acceptability, while never quite appearing to do so as she is caught up in the telling.
Matthew McVarish struts, flirts and demands Mitri’s attention as Fassbinder, constantly impressing and pushing Mitri further than he would like. While Apphia Campbell as the heavily pregnant Virtue provides a somewhat tongue-in-cheek moral compass, moderating the surface, at least, as Mitri is drawn ever deeper into their games.
Apphia Campbell, Helen McAlpine and David Rankine. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
As the boundaries are pushed, David Rankine gets Mitri’s vulnerability down splendidly. There is a story there, deep inside that might be able to come out. But there’s fear too, as he realises that his story – moral fable in a time of war or not – comes second to his role as a plaything for the others.
It’s the overall effect which engages most, however. You might never be more than 20 seconds away from a reference to Genet, whether it is a quote or an allusion to his life, he becomes as much a fable as anything else in here.
So that behind all this bold, sensual exploration of the seediest side of life, this becomes nothing less than an affirmation of the need – the absolute need – for people to have the freedom and resources to construct and tell moral fables in the time of war.