This online festival of 15 films tackles a huge topic with appropriate variety. Contributors include well-known writers and strong performers. Expertly curated by Katherine Kotz, here diversity is the key and the range of ideas, opinions and styles is impressive.
Highlights include Inside Me a short monologue from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm of Emiliafame. Frank and funny, a multi-tasking mother (is there any other kind?) talks about her changing relationship to her body. Tackling pelvic floor exercises, aided by “gentle understanding” from her doctor, the sketch is wonderfully performed by Jenni Maitland.
Poetic evocations of pregnancy and motherhood are provided by Hannah Khalil (accompanied by two strong films) that address a child about to be born and an adult. The epistolary A Letter to My Baby from Anya Reiss also addresses a child in a riveting dense text whose writer freely admits her fantasies and deceitfulness.
There are plenty of other perspectives, too. Suhayla El Bushra’s Baby Yoga has young Shireen (Tsion Gabte) dealing with how her friend’s life has changed now she has a baby. There’s a keen eye on class here that has lots of potential to be expanded. And EV Crowe’s contribution, Number 1, shows the opinions of a young man (Landry Adelard) in trouble at school that’s ultimately rather sweet. Perfectly contained, it is another piece that could easily grow.
Short talks from Athena Stevens, Juno Dawson, Lemn Sissay and Siggi Mwasote vary the pace and provide plenty more to think about. But it’s Katherine Kotz’s own show that I enjoyed most – The Queen’s Head is full of wicked humour and challenging thinking. Performed exquisitely by Kotz herself, this Zoom meeting rant is from a character who is not maternal (after all, Michael Gove was a baby once). The humour and intelligence in the piece confirms that there’s something for everyone in this project.
“The most important thing is the darkness”, our host for the evening tells us, as the audience files into the atmospheric Battersea Arts Centre for theatre with a difference. Ring, conceived and directed by David Rosenberg and produced by Fuel, is performed in total darkness, using headphones to create a sound piece that’s unnerving and unmissable.
The darkness is unnatural, a pitch black not normally experienced, set-up theatrically by Simon Kane, playing Michael, who leads an unusual therapy session with the flair of a magician. Kane’s showmanship establishes the scene marvellously. When the lights go down expectations are up and we are in the midst of the drama: part of a group using the dark as cover to explore issues of blame and frightening events. What our role is, and how we work out what’s going on, is the investigation at the centre of the show and it creates an engaging experience that leaves you exhausted despite its brief 50-minute duration.
Make no mistake; this is not just a variation on a radio play. The idea of the group, people coming together to share an experience, is at the heart of the show and exploring this makes it work as theatre. In these remarkable conditions, the story Ring tries to shape struggles to hold its own, even though writer Glen Neath raises a number of questions and issues, tries to inject some humour, and manages to toy with expectations intelligently.
The science behind the headsets we all wear is fascinating – binaural recording is apparently the key to the uncanny effects – and the technical achievements of Ben and Max Ringham, who designed the sound and music, tremendous. But the show really works because it uses our imaginations. So limitless are the possibilities, the story behind Ring doesn’t quite satisfy: composed of fragmentary scenes and conversations the scenarios are a little too predictable, but the technique is so novel and exciting it has to be heard to be believed.
Performance has always played a role in the story of Odysseus. The tale of Homer’s wandering hero was recited long before it was recorded on paper and the telling has never stopped. The Paper Cinema introduces its own special brand of theatricality by producing a live animation in the form of a film, with pen and ink wash drawings and cut-out paper puppets projected on to a screen.
Apart from an onomatopoeic ‘splash’, words are stubbornly excluded from this retelling, and this focuses our attention all the more on the artistry of both Nic Beard’s wonderful drawings and Ed Dowie’s fantastic accompanying music.
Images and sounds play on a sense of wit and invention that delights, particularly as the puppeteers and musicians sit in front of the screen so that we can watch them making it all happen. It’s fascinating and inculcates a growing sense of respect for their controlled teamwork.
With a seemingly lo-fi approach, one appreciates their care, attention and humour all the more: the overlapping images are perfect for conveying the memories of the characters, and there’s a playful sense of scale and a good few visual jokes (the Cyclops’ dad-and-trident tattoo is a lovely touch).
This journey is hypnotic and heart-warming. It is possible to see a drawback to its charms – it turns The Odyssey into something of a fairy tale. But you’d have to be a real purist to object. The Paper Cinema has such skill in tapping into the magical thrill behind all good puppetry that seeing the strings doesn’t break, but extends, the spell.