Binge Fringe Magazine

REVIEW: The Ballerina, Khaos, VAULT Festival ★☆☆☆☆

A decent performance from Edward Nkom as the authoritarian Pacifique Muamba is not enough to save this piece from its fatal flaws. The Ballerina is a half-baked attempt to question the urgent and meaningful topic of Western neocolonial domination in Africa. It does so through the lens of an interrogation of a British diplomat suspected to be a spy in an unnamed African country. The piece claims that it is putting the African continent “at the centre” of that discussion, but rather than engaging with African politics, it spends most of its runtime making half-explained references to Brexit, Trump, and the intricacies of cooking Hake fish. All the while, the central plot builds up to a scene of torture porn-esque irrelevance in which the interrogee is waterboarded with all the tension of a bent spring.

Colin Clutterbuck is a British diplomat arrested after helping set up a cultural event with the opposition party in the country she is supposed to be carrying out diplomacy within. Muamba arrives with a reputation that precedes him, repeatedly telling Clutterbuck that “We know who [she] works for”. Clutterbuck insists upon her innocence, repeating that a mistake at the country’s Foreign Affairs department left her without a ‘little pink card’ that grants her diplomatic immunity. Muamba begins to deconstruct Clutterbuck’s sense of personhood, by peeling back layers of information and regularly interjecting Clutterbuck’s missionary-eseque righteousness about spreading democracy with critiques of events in the West in recent years – the lack of a free media within Britain during the Brexit referendum, the January 6th insurgency and Donald Trump’s incitement of an attempted coup, to name a few.

All of these are valid points, and the West definitely acts hypocriticrally in the way it intervenes in African politics and foreign affairs. But The Ballerina unfortunately misses the mark in accurately explaining how neocolonial structures operate. If we are to consider The Ballerina‘s message, it is that the West is hypocritical in criticising African countries for human rights violations on the basis that the West’s internal democratic structures are fraught, and that it regularly violates the international norms it espouses on the global stage. Unfortunately, this is a minutised version of the truth. The European Central Bank controls the economic planning of more than a dozen Central and West African Countries (Source). Multinational corporations hoard the wealth of African resources, pushing the development of African nationhood to the periphery (Source). Western countries do not merely reflect onto African politics, they still dominate the continent through the guise of globalisation and internationalism.

Unfortunately The Ballerina‘s depiction of this power dynamic is problematic. The piece creates the image that Western actors act as an auxiliary force in constructing political outcomes, as Clutterbuck does in grassroots organising for the country’s opposition. In reality, the base of power for Western countries in Africa comes top-down from the international actors that insist upon control of the African political economy. The Ballerina‘s position is ‘We’re [Muamba’s nation] not democratic and you’re [the West] not either’, when in reality the neocolonial situation more closely aligns to ‘You [the West] preside over an international system that restricts our [Muamba’s nation] ability to operate as a functional state, and systems of authoritarianism occur in Africa partly as a result of that.’ Missing the point here isn’t just an affront to the story, but also restricts the voice of the oppressed in this situation by presenting comparative internal democratic norms as the central crux on which the dynamic between Africa and the West sits. In reality, it is not comparative human rights violations which control that relation, but systemised domination of resources and economic control.

Back to the piece as I experienced it. Upon entering, rave music plays as performers dance in oversized vinyl masks of Obama, and Goats – the connection unclear other than ‘politics’. In the centre, Clutterbuck sits with a hood on her head. It seems as though this is supposed to build tension and create an ominous atmosphere, but much of the audience came in laughing, and it all felt a little uncomfortably cringe. It wasn’t long before the long and drawn-out confrontation between Clutterbuck (Dominique Izabella Little) and Muamba begins. The language of the interrogation was often quite wordy and unnatural, and often consisted of one asking the other a question, only to meet with “Is that so?”. This section is filled with a lot of padded content, especially a bizzarely unsubstantiated section about the difference between the texture of Beef and Hake Fish, and this could be used to significantly trim the seventy-five minute runtime down.

As aforementioned, the performance from Nkom is strong and at points very impressive and scary. He is believable as an ideologue autocrat, and intention follows every word he says, impacting on the audience. On the flip side however, strange directorial decisions were made about Clutterbuck’s patterns of speech. Her accent, I presume, was meant to imitate the British diplomatic class. Unfortunately, it ended up sounding very over-rehearsed and theatrical, as Little performed almost entirely in Received Prononunciation and ended each sentence with an upward intonation. This was very jarring, and every moment of tension that Nkom manages to build is punctured by the oddness of either the dialogue or Clutterbuck’s intonance.

The waterboarding scene at the end was decently performed on all sides, with props to Little for going through what appeared to be a very realistic waterboarding experience. Unfortunately the realism of the torture is not matched by quality in the combative sections that bookend it. We can clearly see the distance between Nkom and Little as they slap and punch each other, and the receiving groans and moans were too muted to deliver impact.

The final tension builds to little of significance, as the several plot twists all undo themselves by the show’s finale. The show is too long, too obstinate and poorly directed to deliver what it wants to achieve. It feels as though the team need to go back to basics with this one to work out what they wanted the audience to walk out thinking and feeling. The show does little to add to the conversation, the talking points of which you could find far more accessibly in shortform articles in left-wing magazines. The Ballerina thinks it is doing something revolutionary, but has missed the mark by some way here. A bizarre section where everyone strips to their underwear and lurches outward at each side of the audience does nothing to alleviate.

Recommended Drink: Grab a healthy glass of water for this one.

Want to see if you disagree? You can catch The Ballerina until February 5th at 18:10. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.

Amendment: Removed two lines about criticism of dual-aisle seating for irrelevancy.

Jake Mace

Our Lead Editor & Edinburgh Editor. Jake loves putting together novel-length reviews that try to heat-seek the essence of everything they watch. They are interested in New Writing, Literary Adaptations, Musicals, Cabaret, and Stand-Up. Jake aims to cover themes like Class, Nationality, Identity, Queerness, and AI/Automation.

Festivals: EdFringe (2018-2023), Brighton Fringe (2019), Paris Fringe (2020), VAULT Festival (2023), Prague Fringe (2023), Dundee Fringe (2023)
Pronouns: They/Them