Edinburgh Fringe 2018
“August 1916, the great explorer Alexandra David-Néel has been in her hermitage cavern in the Himalayas for two and a half years, following the teachings of her guru, the Lama Gomchen. She comes to us to make an incredible revelation and take us to the heart of her initiatory journey. So, in a crazy race where she subtly knits particle science, personal experiences and the secret doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism, the spectator is invited to become an accomplice in a formidable and troubling questioning.”
The commonality in the discoveries of quantum physics of the likes of Max Planck, and the ancient teachings of Buddhism are explored in this solo piece. Presented in character monologue, Alexandra David Néel is able to address us here in 2018, via the fruits of spiritual practice, an address that is essentially a treatise of the nature of reality, the limitations of linear time, and the covergence of science and spirituality. Alexandra David Néel was a Belgian–French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer. Writer and performer Mariane Zahar takes on the role, weaving together both the reflections and story of Néel. It is intense acting, direct, charismatic and evokes that time well.
What we have here is eighty minutes of finely crafted and acted monologue that, from the first moment of even deciding to see the show, invites your active attention as a free and consistent act of will. The show itself examines and describes the quality of that attention, looking at meditation and the limits of knowledge and experience when we confine ourselves to a limited three-dimensional existence. There is, according to our host, life and far more essential experience beyond those confines, a realm in which love has a reality more telling and tangible than our daily, earthly intellectual cleverness.
This may seem strange to you but the performer attempts to address you on more than one level, to those levels of reality beyond the material here and now. Some audience members were ready and willing to take on that role of attention or at least to suspend their disbelief; others drifted off and away from it. That’s going to be inevitable. Don’t expect the performer to do all of the work for you as she narrates her story in character but also offers an alternative take on reality – a reality dogmatically loved by current materialistic science. Though this is a monologue from start to finish, it also has a quality of urgency one minute, and gentle patience the next.
This is daring work, because it takes risks at the Fringe. It explores ideas about the universe that are not accepted nor even well known by most of western civillisation, ideas to be found in the more aloof centres of the world, such as those guarding the ancient Buddhist wisdom in Tibet, a place that, in 1916 was banned to a western explorer.
The show is performed in an intimate space, is fairly but deliberately static in how it is presented (with episodes of movement and evocative sound) . It is here for the first time in an English-language version from a French original (You can buy the book after the performance if you want). Only in a few places did I struggle to understand the performer’s accent, but that will even out during the longer run.
Challenging, competently performed, boundary-breaking in terms of its publicly performed content, go and see DNA if you want to experience one person’s exploration into how science and spirituality speak the same higher language using different words and thoughts.
Ultimately both meditation and higher ancient wisdom refer to a practice. The same is true for quantum physics. It becomes about the work – how we, the world and the universe work. In an intriguing way, this show is also a kind of practice. You won’t enjoy or ‘get’ it if you just sit there and expect to be entertained. You may need to lean into it, or even enjoy parts of it just washing over the more superficial you. But it certainly offers some unique material at this year’s Fringe. And it is unashamed at its simple staging, dense content, and not always easy to grasp ideas. You may, like Alexandra David-Néel, have to go on a journey you have never been on before.