Sunday, 20 July 2014

Theatre review: The Curing Room

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This was a London preview of a show officially premiering at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) might have spotted that among the many things I like to see on stage, male nudity and a spot of gory violence are perennial favourites. So a play that combines large amounts of both should be very much my idea of fun (in fact I only found out about this play because a number of people contacted me about it, as if I have a reputation or something1.) But among the many strengths of The Curing Room, "fun" isn't too high on the list. Inspired by a couple of brief, anecdotal accounts from the Second World War, as well as taking in elements from famines in Stalinist Russia, David Ian Lee's play sees seven Russian soldiers thrown naked by the Nazis into the cellar of a Polish monastery. They try to keep their spirits up but after a few days it becomes increasingly apparent they're unlikely to be rescued - indeed, they may have been forgotten altogether. (Some NSFW imagery after the text break.)

Between the threat of starvation and growing personal tensions, it looks like some are bound to die, which raises the issue of whether the survivors should eat the dead. Having the characters be Soviets gives an interesting slant to their initial arguments about this; with them not having a religious faith, at least not one they can admit to, this makes their discussion of cannibalism about what it means for their humanity, as well as a self-preservation issue of whether, should someone find them, they'll be shot for doing something so horrific.

With 100 minutes of sustainedFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!and a controversial subject this seems like gratuitous shock value to grab attention at the busy Edinburgh Festival, but while I'm unfamiliar with Lee or director Joao de Sousa's work, there's a number of familiar names among the creatives lending respectability to the production - Philip Lindley designs the set (there's no costume designer for obvious reasons,) David Howe the lighting, Angus Macrae the sound and the fights are by Bret Yount. And the nudity certainly lends an absurdity to the soldiers' adherence to military rank - despite the fact that he was promoted while at a desk job, is blatantly out of his depth and possibly an alcoholic, Captain Nikolov (Rupert Elmes) is accorded a level of respect that at times even overrides the men's survival instinct.

There's a pretty strong cast here, with Matt Houston as Georgi particularly good in his first role straight out of Central - I hope to see him more in future, even if he puts some clothes on. Although to be clear, if he chooses not to that is also fine by me. As both the cannibalism and the personal animosities between the men build in intensity the play becomes almost unbearably tense (there were a few walkouts tonight, although as ever we can't assume there weren't other reasons for them.)

There's certainly a deliberately provocative element here - like Sarah Kane's Blasted but even harder to stomach because of the naturalism. Lee and de Sousa actually do a good job of making neither the nudity nor the violence seem gratuitous, but they do, for me, keep pushing just that little bit too long: The body horror is sustained to the point that it starts to border on torture porn, undoing some of the earlier good work; and the blackly comic title is about as close to light relief as you get. It's a shame as what looked like being a piece of straightforward exploitation almost, but not quite, erased all suggestions of this. But while it's problematic, a piece that courts headlines does actually turn out to have something to back the hype up; and I wouldn't be surprised to see it return to London once its Edinburgh run is over.

The Curing Room by David Ian Lee is booking from the 30th of July to the 25th of August at the Pleasance Dome's King Dome, Edinburgh.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

1I prefer to think of it as a USP

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