Land Without Words @ Just The Tonic @ The Caves, Edinburgh

performed by
Lucy Ellinson

directed by
Lydia Ziemke
It is Lucy Ellinson’s totally exposing performance that makes Land Without Words so visceral a piece of theatre.

German playwright Dea Loher’s monologue is an intentionally challenging and sometimes impenetrable piece. An unnamed artist, a painter, describes her experiences visiting a war-scarred city.

The city is referred to throughout only as K, from which the audience infer Kabul, Afghanistan, a place Loher herself has visited, writing this play in response to what she saw there.
The response of the artist to war and its consequences is in fact the key question here. What role can art play in such a situation? Having witnessed scenes of utter desperation, of starving and suffering, of human beings reduced to scrabbling on the ground like animals for a few drops of water or a few scraps of food having seen children tearing money from a beggar woman’s hands or shrouding their burnt faces and their gaping toothless mouths, what can possibly be done from the artist’s perspective, what more can be said. She cannot move, she becomes a statue, unable to paint.

Ellinson, sitting astride a wooden platform, bare-chested and anxious eyed, interrogates herself. Her flow of words loops in nervous circles as she splits herself down the middle, emptying herself, rejecting her past aesthetic principles, and reassessing everything she understands art to be. She makes repeated reference to an artist referred to only as Him, whom the audience come to understand as Mark Rothko from the details she supplies.

As she speaks, Ellinson moulds a piece of clay in her hands before placing it over her face. When the mask falls away she is a walking ghost, her eyelashes clogged with grey. She smears dirt across her body and tips water onto her head, leaving her skin soaked, her hair dripping and dark. She hunches and writhes, an animal trapped and all the time her eyes radiate pain and confusion, a loss of self. This all plays out against the raw brick walls of The Caves, perhaps the perfect Fringe venue for such a piece.

This is not an easy piece. It’s both heavily stylised and unrelentingly intense and sometimes it feels excessive and indulgent; after all it’s one of the luxuries of those living securely and comfortably in the West to be able to devote time and energy to such agonising. But it also captures the dilemma of the true artist, of the person who knows no other way to live, and Ellison’s searing, open performance is never less than compelling.

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