Borges and I, New Diorama Theatre

This is not quite, as the title might suggest, a play about Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. In Idle Motion’s acquired style, factual inspiration is shaken up and fitted back together into something familiar but new, recognisable yet lightly startling. Here, instead of standing solidly at its centre, Borges instead infects the piece like a ghost – fleeting, insubstantial, but hauntingly present.

Borges’ life story, or at least parts of it, is told through his own words and through those of Alice, a candidate interviewing for a job at the prestigious Bodleian Library. Intertwined with this appropriately elusive and magical narrative is the rather more ordinary story of Sophie and Nick, a couple who meet through the now achingly familiar social set-up of the book club. As might be expected, it is all tea, mild social embarrassment and smiling competitiveness, allowing acres of room for gentle observational humour.

The connection between these two narrative threads initially seems tenuous, stitched together by little more than a love of literature, but as Sophie and Nick progress from tentative, awkward flirtation to tender relationship, the disparate elements become more closely knit, if never quite fully meshed. The proximity of the pedestrian and the extraordinary creates a delicate frisson, the scene transitions reminiscent of that pleasing jolt between the world of the everyday and the fantastical worlds of fiction as a novel first takes its grip on the imagination.

While this is essentially a love story, and an absorbing, quietly moving one at that, the real love affair portrayed by Idle Motion is the one that we entertain with literature. We are told that when Borges learnt that he was losing his sight he returned to his childhood books, implying that, as with any affair, it is the heady beginnings that are the most seductive. Lines are also drawn between literature and immortality; books can be both painfully ephemeral and eternally enduring. Meanwhile, both the devised text and the gorgeous lighting design hint at themes of darkness and illumination, ideas with a dual meaning for Borges and his progressive blindness.

In what is fast becoming Idle Motion’s trademark, but fortunately shows little sign of wearing thin just yet, objects continually take the audience by surprise. Scraps of paper shower from an opening umbrella; books transform into birds, aeroplanes, skyscrapers; a projected tiger dances across rippling pages. The book is fittingly the central prop, with piles of the things littering the stage and stacked up on the set’s two large bookshelves. When the narrative folds back into Borges’ biography, the transfiguring of books into the objects and creatures that populate his life is aptly evocative of the imaginative power of fiction, in which ink and paper are the only physical props needed to conjure vast palaces of the imagination.

Visually, this is a thing of beauty, inventive but unshowy, creating a lot from sparse resources. When I spoke to the company earlier this year, they told me that they actively put “boundaries” on themselves to enhance their creativity during the development process. “If you limit yourself with your use of props,” said company manager Grace Chapman, “it actually increases your flow of ideas”. This method of constraints has certainly worked for them with this piece, inspiring ever more ingenious uses of the books surrounding them. If books are, as Idle Motion suggest, remembered with all the senses, then ours are feasted generously.

Yet for all this creativity and visual flair, Borges and I still feels somewhat slight. It is pretty but slender – a paperback rather than a hefty tome. I was left wanting more, which is no bad thing and says much for Idle Motion’s innovative charm and delicate storytelling, but was ultimately just a little disappointing. Although when I think about it, even that recalls the experience of reading; often those otherwise absorbing books depart with a faint, yearning sigh for something more.

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