BY AMITA JOSHI  

Overturned cabinets laid strewn in the cavernous grey arts space and a heavy mist trailed along the floor. Sirens shrilled out and a patient was rushed in on a stretcher from behind us, his family running behind it, screaming for him to be saved.

But as the thundering drums reached a climax and the lights flashed, the audience already knew where this was going. He was dead. Surprising beginning for a play deemed as a comedy by playwright Elchin Efendiyev, yet as it unravelled, there was a curious balance between comedy and thought provoking self-reflection.

Elchin is one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent literary figures whose works have been translated into more than 20 languages. As Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan, his plays often tackle human dilemmas and Telescope is no exception. The theatre production is part of a series of arts performances that make up Buta Festival, the first celebration of Azerbaijani arts in London.

Building cultural bridges is the aim of the festival: to bring the independent country’s vibrant theatre to cities like London. From the moment the play began, it was unique in its construction of setting. We were sat on the stage, sometimes seating shoulder to shoulder with the actors as they told the story of Man, who had died and was stuck in a halfway house between heaven and hell.

Waking at the Way station, he finds himself meeting his previous partner, Woman, who began explaining life after death. Administered by angel bureaucrats, the station is full of millions of souls who are waiting to be tested. In the meantime, he decided he would look down a telescope that shows him what people on Earth are doing.

But what he saw shocked him; each person he watched revealed to him his true character when he was alive. With each glance down the telescope, performers stood on different platforms woven in between the audience members and gave us a glimpse of life after Man’s death.

The comedy element was there as promised and with the play happening around us, we were truly immersed in the entertaining scenarios. Yet there was also a philosophical exploration of life after death – what legacy would we leave in the world? Do we really do things to help others and love others as unconditionally as the angels suggested we should? The absorbing delivery from Chris Simmons, Tanya Franks, angels, medical staff and family members mixed with the set design made for an intriguing play which left you laughing.

But beneath the well-constructed scenery was a message of perspective. If all of humanity reflected on their actions as they are carried out, maybe the pain of looking down the telescope wouldn’t be so tender.

As the play came to an end, it was with an upbeat, inspired motion that the audience left the Testbed1 arts space. It was my first experience of Azerbaijani arts but definitely not the last.

Telescope by Elchin Efendiyev is showing at Testbed1 Battersea Feb 25-Mar 7