Polish stilt drama about the war in Bosnia? You had to be there, says Adrian Turpin

Adrian Turpin
Friday 28 June 1996 23:02 BST

Paternoster Square, the great concrete void tucked away behind St Paul's Cathedral, has become the key battleground in the debate about how to develop public spaces in our cities. Five years ago, Prince Charles turned the square's redevelopment into a personal crusade, tilting at Sixties brutalism and championing the cause of some Disneyfied neo-classical designs. The property slump put paid to them. But now the issue has become a live one again. The Corporation of London and the square's owners, Mitsubishi, are again negotiating about the future of the site.

If anyone still doubts the benefits of a communal and cultural breathing space in the City, they should attend tonight's final performance of Carmen Funebre (Funeral Song) in Paternoster Square. It is an extraordinary piece of street theatre. When Poland's Teatr Biuro Podrozy performed it at 1995's Edinburgh Fringe, Carmen attracted crowds of over a thousand by the end of its run. That's how enthusiastic the word of mouth was. On Thursday, it stilled a crowd of more than 200 to absolute silence - city "suits" who'd wandered in out of mild curiosity, no less than dedicated fans of physical theatre.

What's most remarkable about this is that Carmen Funebre is no feelgood piece of slapstick but a thoroughly sombre piece about the war in Bosnia. It's also performed on, of all things, stilts. The show opens to a throbbing electric beat. Two stilted figures prowl the edges of the crowd. Dressed like gladiators, they use torches to pick out six figures from the audience. Then they whip them, force them to strip to their underwear, and drive them through a set of menacing metal gates.

Coldly described on paper, it sounds a crude bit of symbolism: War of the Worlds meets the Holocaust. But, in the flesh, that seems not to matter; and, anyway, those suspicions of crudity are soon dispelled when the towering man-monsters are replaced by towering beggars, amputees dressed in black, rattling tin canteens at the crowd. The 40-minute piece is full of moments like that, when victims become aggressors or vice-versa. Carmen Funebre may be very direct but it's astute, too.

And moving? If you'd told me beforehand that a stilted grim-reaper carrying a 10-foot pitchfork or the sound of bells tolling as a stage-set burns could be more affecting than hours of news footage, I'd never have believed it. Strangely, it's true.

Final performance 10pm tonight 0171-638 8891

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