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Battle of the Ages: Federer Versus Murray

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You would think that Federer Versus Murray,  a Scottish play first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe about the Swiss Federer and the Scottish Murray would be a pro-Murray play about tennis. But you would be wrong. In fact, nothing is as it seems in this layered, complex one-act play that is not much about tennis (except as an opportunity for metaphor) but rather about personal, public and political battles and, according to the author, “the link between the personal and the political.”

The play is also about loss, grief, marriage, culture, class, and the struggle back – personally and politically — from lies and estrangement to honesty and intimacy. Quite a lot is packed into one hour.

A dark, two-person tragic-comedy (plus a ghostly sax player who becomes more and more real) about a working class Scottish couple, the two characters verbally go at each other in their effort to deal with the death of their son in Afghanistan. (Written and performed in Scots dialect, it’s difficult to understand every word but the theater has thoughtfully provided an issue of the magazine, Salmagundi, which provides both the script and an interview with the author.)

The acting is flawless, with author Gerda Stevenson as Flo, an auxiliary nurse and angry, withholding wife, and Dave Anderson, as Jimmy, her out-of-work, tennis-loving husband. Flo cannot speak of what has happened and in her grief turns against her self-educated politically astute husband and towards a kind friend. Jimmy, who secretly plays the sax, as did their son, compulsively watches tennis and consumes newspaper coverage of the war, wanting to confront the emotional and political chasm that threatens to destroy their marriage. “You son died for lies,” he angrily bellows at Flo.

The play is being mounted in a tiny theater. It puts us, the audience, practically in the laps of this warring couple, which is both an uncomfortable and, ultimately, powerfully moving place to be. As Wimbledon is about to begin on the Telly, Jimmy waxes eloquent about Federer’s grace, elegance and gentlemanliness, while Flo, a proud Scot, is reflexively pro-Murray. In the fourth of five scenes (reflecting a five-set tennis match) as the final battle between Federer and Murray is about to be played, Jimmy paints his face with the Swiss flag and Flo with the Scottish flag. What ensues is both hilarious and harrowing. Between this and the final scene, in which the couple wind up on a mountain in Switzerland, the saxophone player, now dressed in army fatigues, walks the periphery of the stage playing a mournful funeral march. The spotlight illuminates both the soldier and the audience, an audience I’ve rarely seen so moved and stricken with grief as this one. It is a powerful moment in a play that proves, among other things, that you don’t need three acts to create a powerful work of art.

Photos by Jessica Brettle

Federer Versus Murray
Written and directed by Gerda Stevenson
59E59 Theaters
April 4 – 22, 2012

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