A middle-aged man stands on stage decked out in full drag queen attire with a huge grin on his face, crooning about rubber bullets. Such is the bizarre opening scene of “Ballad of the Burning Star”, the latest foray into experimental theatre from the highly acclaimed company “Theatre Ad Infinitum”.
The show tells the story of Israel – the country and the boy (Israel is a common male name in…well, Israel). The show leaps from scene to scene with terrible contrast – an IDF raid on a Palestinian village leads into a tense night in a bomb shelter waiting for the arrival of poison gas to Ben Gurion’s independence speech after the foundation of Israel to a Jewish girl on the Kindertransport witnessing the death of her little sister. The set is essentially non-existent, meaning the show relies completely on the protagonist drag queen, backed by his guitarist/drummer ‘Camp David’ and the five ‘starlets’, who live up to their punny name by periodically forming the ‘Star of David’. Somehow, they pull it off – the 90-minute show with no intermission is gripping from start to finish.
The show is a continual balancing act. Just when it appears to be giving excessive focus to one side of the conflict, it makes a drastic U-turn and tells the perspective of the other. Just when it starts to become very serious in tone, it is interrupted by some (much-needed) comic relief in the form of the drag queen’s meta-theatrical quips. At one point, one of the starlets lies prostrate on stage, wailing at the death of her son in a bus attack during one of the Intifadas. The drag queen chides her for being melodramatic, saying: ‘Don’t over-do it! This isn’t a soap opera, it’s a serious political piece.’ While the starlets recite the history of Jewish persecution to the accompaniment of some surprisingly catchy pop music, the drag queen confides in the audience: ‘If you need the toilet, now would be a good time to go.’
It is hard to know how to react to a show, which depicts persecution, death and grief under the comical guise of cabaret and drag. Perhaps this is why the teenage boy sitting next to me in the audience couldn’t control his giggles during a scene set in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It is an emotional explosion that leaves you with little hope that the conflict-ridden state will ever be, in the words of the lead character, a ‘normal country’.