Review: Spectacular and disturbing work in Coventry Cathedral ruins

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Carmen Funebre at Coventry Cathedral

The show was staged by Polands Teatr Biuro Podrozy
The show was staged by Polands Teatr Biuro Podrozy

The finale of Coventry's festival of imagination exploded in spectacular, if disturbing, style. The ruins of the city's old cathedral were the perfect setting for Carmen Funebre, a powerful piece of physical theatre that evoked the horrible experience of war and of those caught up in it as civilian refugees. The show was loosely constructed to reflect that of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, but had resonances that went much further afield.

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Giant figures on stilts twelve feet high, wearing the kind of gear one might expect to find in a Marquis de Sade fantasy, brandished whips and glowered menacingly over the audience and above a small group of terrified civilians on stage. Drunken soldiers wielding huge rifles abused a female prisoner. Crosses burned, oil-soaked clothes erupted in flames, shadows licked the old stone walls and lights illuminated the stormy sky. Behind it all stood two huge gates, reminiscent of Auschwitz or of Hell, open to draw in poor, desperate souls,.

This was an evocation of violence, of man’s basest tendencies. But there was also compassion and hope. The woman is freed, a spirit of resilience walks among the ghosts of horror. The gates are eventually opened. Memorials are constructed, the dead remembered and honoured.

Poland’s Teatr Biuro Podrozy have performed this show to much critical acclaim all over the world and in all sorts of places. But few could have been as apt as this place destroyed by hate, yet alive in hope.