If you’ll forgive the cliché, sometimes less really can be more, as Theatre ad Infinitum prove with their delicate essay on love and loss. The plot is simple, the production accomplished through a blend of simplicity and ingenuity. The elderly male protagonist is coming to terms with the loss of his wife, still taking down two cups from the cupboard instead of one, rifling through suitcases brimming with memories; his wife’s ghost looks on, gently but firmly wrenching herself from his grieving grasp. This is all told, over an hour, with no words. Instead we have the sigh and hum of an accordion, the narrative precision of movement. In a beautifully judged touch, masks are inventively used to convey age, whipped away to transport the couple back to their youth and lightly hinting at the deceptive proximity of these two states.
Through a series of smoothly executed flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into this couple’s life together, from the moment they meet, through their small joys and disappointments, to the little tragedies that touch their existence and eventually wrench them apart. Into this moving story of the lives of one ordinary couple, Theatre ad Infinitum even manage to weave one of the most chillingly evocative visualisations of war and its traumatic psychological scars that I’ve seen on the stage. On real and dreamed battlefields, performer George Mann is pummelled by invisible blasts, painfully contorted, violently tossed about by nightmarish forces. Not all of Spielberg’s mud and gore can quite match it for emotional force.
Speaking of emotional force, while watching I couldn’t help thinking of Lovesong. While these may in many senses be two very different pieces of theatre, there are common elements that immediately leap out: the process of a man coming to terms with the idea of losing his wife, the centrality of physical movement, the melting of past into present. I found, however, that Translunar Paradise was more genuinely moving in its wordless simplicity than Lovesong was in all its none too subtle emotional manipulation. Sobbing is all very well (though not something I’m particularly susceptible to in the theatre, to my immense discomfort as everyone around me at the Lyric Hammersmith sniffed into their tissues) but an excess of tears can blur meaning beyond intelligibility.
While Lovesong sacrificed promising debates about the nature of time in favour of prodding at our tear ducts, here such underlying strands are given more nuanced exploration. Through what is, on the surface, an ordinary tale of two ordinary people, Theatre ad Infinitum delicately investigate the fluidity of time and, linked to this, memory. Form subtly reflects content; the flashbacks emerge as snapshots, flicked through with vivid energy. These elegantly choreographed scenes from the past rather appropriately have the stuttering quality of early film, jumping from action to action, meticulously wrought expression to expression. There is all the frenetic motion of memory and the seemingly speeded up time of youth.
After seeing this moving and beautifully assembled piece, however, I found myself thinking as much about how my impression of the performance had been refracted through my experience of speaking to creator Mann as I was thinking about the show itself. This is not to detract from Translunar Paradise in any way, but perhaps rather to detract from my own abilities and assumptions as a reviewer. As a result, this has morphed from a review into a not-quite-review with a bit of reflection on the distance between theatremakers and critics thrown into the mix.
This issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me. Yes, I sometimes review shows after writing features about those shows, but usually I still feel qualified to form an independent opinion; I don’t know the creators of the theatre well enough from one short interview to be swayed by any personal connection to them, and often there is much about the piece that still remains to be discovered even after discussing it. While it might have put a slightly different slant on those reviews, I hadn’t really thought about it in any great depth until recently.
Then the idea of ’embedded’ critics started getting thrown around. A good place to get started if you’re new to this discussion is Andrew Haydon’s blog, where he has written twice about the idea of embedded criticism, with Daniel Bye’s response making good follow up reading. Distilled down and somewhat simplified, embedded criticism denotes the deeper involvement of the critic in the piece of theatre they are writing about, be that a full immersion in the creative process or more of a surface paddle. There are lots of different ways in which this might function in practice, but the driving idea behind it is that being embedded in the process could provide illumination on both sides: critics bring their outside eye and in return gain insight into the process of making.
I’m not going to discuss embedded criticism and all its benefits and drawbacks here, partly because others have already done so fairly comprehensively and partly because I’m yet to fully make my mind up about it. I’m equally fascinated by, excited about and wary of the idea. Which brings me to the particular wariness I felt while watching Translunar Paradise. I think these concerns arose in relation to this particular production simply because Mann spoke in such eloquent detail about the process of meticulously piecing this show together. Through hearing about creative choices, I felt somehow involved in them, and the end product immediately prompted memories of the process that Mann described to get to this stage. As such, I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects.
There is always the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that as an audience member you will be unable to distinguish between whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to. There are even occasions, such as I found with Headlong’s confused and frankly bizarre touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.
Aware of this danger, doubts insidiously imposed themselves on my reading of Translunar Paradise. Was this really an exercise in precision, or did I simply see precision because I knew about the lengthy creative process? Here I feel fairly confident that yes, Theatre ad Infinitum’s work was beautifully precise, but when it comes to other building blocks of the piece I am less certain. Would I have read quite so much into the choice of accordion accompaniment had Mann not spoken about the importance of an instrument that “breathes”? Would I have picked up on the influences of photography and graphic novels? How much would I have scrutinised the physical embodiment of age had Mann not admitted that it took him a lot of work to perfect the gait of an old man?
But for all my doubts, I also feel immensely grateful for the insight that I gained into the process that made this piece of work. Ultimately I found watching Translunar Paradise a hypnotically captivating experience, which I suspect was a mixture of the show itself and the tiny glimpse I had gained of its loving creation. I also hope that any insight provided by Mann’s words might enhance the experience for other audience members. It’s a lot like the magician and his illusions; magical as it might be to be tricked and dumbfounded, another part of the mind always wants to know how it works, to feel for the cracks. And sometimes being shown the process behind the illusion even makes the illusion itself all the more beguiling.
Image: Alex Brenner