THEATRE: A Tainted Dawn; Gateway

Edinburgh Festival: International
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The Independent Culture
Vultures aren't fussy creatures. They make no distinction between a dead Hindu and a dead Muslim. The carnage following the partition of India - the 50th anniversary of which fell at midnight last night - gave these birds a lot of material to be unchoosy about. A grisly observation, it provides the basis for one of the more unusual episodes in A Tainted Dawn, a piece by Tamasha theatre company which adroitly interweaves themes, plot lines and images from nine short stories about the partition.

Here, with something of the black humour of the gravediggers' scene in Hamlet, we are shown this huge historical event from the narrow, comically self-interested perspective of a pair of professional peacetime corpse- bearers whose livelihoods depend on being able to assure the bereaved that their loved ones' bones will be ritually picked clean. This grumpy pair are no better than they should be. In revenge for the slightest snub, they'll sell a stiff to the medical school and run a lucrative line by blackmailing relatives who harbour guilty secrets. But with vultures now defecting en masse to the richer pickings of the almost daily massacres, the bottom looks set to fall out of this (not unvulture-like) trade.

Elsewhere, the angle of approach is gravely direct. Bundled into tense train compartments, or rushing to hurl their belongings on to impatiently revving getaway lorries, or in exhausted procession over the cracked earth of Sue Mayes' powerfully simple set, the dispossessed are shown in desperate flight from religious intolerance. We see how, baited by Pathans on a rail journey from Lahore to Delhi, a mild-seeming bureaucrat takes disgusting revenge once the train passes into his home territory. With a nice artistic impartiality, we see the same actor (Nizwar Karanj) play the bigot in two opposed communities. When a childless Muslim couple clandestinely take in a little boy left behind in a panicky exodus, Karanj is the officious convert-hungry mullah who comes round with the challenge, "We hear you have a non-believer in your house". Over on the other side, Karanj is the party-pooping voice of prejudice at the celebrations marking the boy's return.

Lacing together so many strands and having to fill in historical background, A Tainted Dawn does not have the time to invest its characters with much individuality. In a piece that dramatises the horrors of treating people as labels, this might be thought something of a handicap. But there's rich compensation in the archetypal intensity achieved in certain scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith's production. On the same refugee trail, a woman deeply grief-stricken at the accidental abandonment of her child tries to counsel a gang-rape victim who is refusing to eat because of "the seed of damnation" in her womb. Keeping the parallels with contemporary Eastern Europe implicit, the piece ends with the poetically positive spectacle of a woman in enforced exile talking to the baby who symbolises the roots she is surprised to have sunk in alien soil. To Mon. Booking: 0131-473 2000 Paul Taylor

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