Edinburgh Festival: Lauder! (4 stars)

A troubled child, a lost key, Hamlet, family, New York, skulls – Polish company Teatr Hotel Malabar certainly knows how to throw together a fragmented group of images and ideas and turn them into something intriguing and profound.

Rather than presenting us with a story and then bringing out its details, they take the details and ask us to fit them together without us ever really knowing what it is we’re making.

What emerges, in brief and disjointed bursts, is a tale based upon Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about nine-year-old Oskar Schell who travels across America’s largest city in search of his father in the aftermath of 9/11. All he has is a key to help him and the kindness of the strangers he meets.

The unsettling Oskar and his twisted world challenge our notions of accepted truths. What if buildings rather than lifts went up and down? What if laughter could create a flock of birds? Or an ambulance say goodbye on behalf of the person dying inside?

Performers Marcin Bartnikowski and Marcin Bikowski, along with director Michael Vogel, make the metaphysical tangible – through macabre puppets, contorted skull-like masks, cold projections of Google maps, and a dark kind of clowning that draws in Shakespearian motifs. They create something new and exciting through stark juxtapositions, and while it’s not always an easy piece to grasp it makes up for this with moments that stay with you long after it’s ended.

Like Safran Foer’s writing, this isn’t a piece for everyone. It’s more concept than character-led, and anyone expecting a traditional piece of storytelling might find its boundary-pushing approach alienating. The literal narrative is less of a priority than a philosophical commentary. At times, this can feel frustrating. There isn’t an obvious beginning, middle and end, just snapshots that sometimes click together and sometimes don’t. The performances are intense and compelling, the music (by Charlotte Wilde) offbeat and atmospheric. But eventually a picture, of sorts, emerges and it’s one that has been created in such an unusual way that it’s all the more special because of this.

Written for The Scotsman

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