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The show
must go on

Fringe physical theatre favourite DEREVO makes a long-awaited return to the Fringe with a show about tragedy in art, that began With a tragedy in life. Words: Donald Hutera

Theatre can be, some say should be, a risky business, fraught with emotional and even physical danger. In its higher forms, it has the potential to embrace life-and-death matters. Sometimes the death is literal.
   In June I visited the Polish city of Poznan, where the Russian troupe Derevo was performing at the Malta Internationa! Theatre Festival. Held on the shores of a large man-made lake-cum-leisure activity centre, the festival is in its twelfth year. I arrived at a sensitive time. The previous day, on the 2002 festival's opening night, an actress in a German company had died in an accident mid-performance. At a meeting the following morning it was decided each ensemble had to determine for itself whether or not to cancel its evening performance.
   For the members of Derevo, the best way to honour their deceased colleague's memory was to heed the advice of the Queen song: 'The Show Must Go On.' This choice made sense given that their new work, La Divina Commedia, staged inside a circus tent, delves wordlessly into themes of moral responsibility, mortality, celebration, suffering and spiritual redemption. Rife with metaphorical transformations and Christian and pagan iconography, it digs between the lines of Dante's Divine Comedy via a stream of extravagant images and full-out corporeal expression.
   Derevo's visceral, frightening and funny 90-rninute epic is a nightly battle between theatrical madness and aesthetic control. Company founder Anton Adassinski plays a sort of satanic ringmaster. Three other actors, equally brilliant, embody a rogues' gallery of witches and wizards, an angelic jester, a bare-breasted ram and a chicken-buggering penititent, plus cameos by Death, Father Time and a love-struck rabbit. The major set-piece is a giant turntable, perhaps a vestige of the work's early conception as a 'death rock musical' entitled Suicide. The soundtrack blends industrial noise, throat singing, Frank Zappa and 'Chopsticks'.
   La Divina expands in the memory. 'It's something more than we are,' says Adassinski. 'People tell us: "You have 25 ideas in the performance. You can build from one a whole show." But we are so hungry to give more.'
   Treating live performance as a sacred amalgam of high and low art, Derevo packs a diabolical fairground feeling into the piece that ought to delight fans and convert newcomers.

    'We don't have any human characters here,' Adassinski says. 'They have no names. It's the first time we play symbols. It's a fantastic task, but very difficult to avoid a sock smell.' By this he means 'to be cool', something requiring both enormous delicacy and reserves of energy. 'It has to be shadows we are playing. The preparation takes six, seven hours. It's difficult to speak with people, difficult to see the sun. But if you play well, dance well, every step you take you feel was already done one hundred years ago.

'People tell us
we have 25
ideas, but we
are so hungry to
give more'
   Founded in St Petersburg in 1988, Derevo (Russian for 'tree') adheres to a rigorous aesthetic derived from Japan's post-war performance style of butoh. Pale, wiry and shaven-headed, company members lead lives of monastic theatricality at their current base in Dresden. Red Zone, an exercise in brute metaphysical anarchy, was their unforgettable Fringe calling card. Next came Once, an uproariously comic, deeply moving fable of unrequited love that scooped up a Fringe First.
   'You have to build a performance like a symphony,' Adassinski says, 'or poetry.' Nothing should be too radical, though. 'I won't put the end at the beginning. I like it if normal people can see it, not just some intellectual elite. It's like sex, in a good way. If you're working together, breathing in and out, you can have a good time.' Or, with Derevo, a divine one.

La Divina Commedia, Assembly Big Top, 226 2428, until 26 Aug (not 7, 14, 21), 10pm, E10-E11 (£9-£10).
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