What I Heard About the World, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

What do you think of when someone mentions Brazil? Israel? How about Korea? The concept behind this collaboration between Third Angel, mala voadora and Chris Thorpe is born from the partial knowledge that we can now boast about all the far-flung corners of the world, dinner party trivia that slots together into a fragmented vision of the globe. As Thorpe puts it, “the more we know, the bigger the world gets”, and the more knowledge is accumulated, the more that the gaps in our knowledge glare out at us.

Creating a colourful theatrical map, Thorpe, Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly and mala voadora’s Jorge Andrade relate stories and quirky snippets of facts from around the world, communicated through direct narration, through pen-scrawled pictures, through roughly assembled sketches and through electric guitar accompanied music. Eschewing the indifferent wisdom of statistics, their charming and disturbing anecdotes all veer on the wacky side of odd, from cardboard cut-out figures issued by the American military to the families of servicemen and women, to a confession hotline that promises to cleanse you of your sins at a reasonable rate.

It rapidly becomes clear that what all of these stories share is their focus on artificiality. In a newspaper in Singapore, the editors photoshop suits onto obituary photographs; in Brazil you can hire mourners, while in Germany paid-for protestors are a booming commodity. Most staggeringly, a couple in Korea allowed their own baby to starve to death because they were so fixated on caring for their virtual child that they forgot they had a real one. Everywhere, it seems, signs and substitutes abound, and anything can be bought if you know who to call. The piece skilfully traces a map of an increasingly connected yet dislocated globe, around which revolves a Baudrillardian precession of simulacra.

As a backdrop to this carousel of eccentricity, the stage at St Stephen’s is packed with paraphernalia both homely and exotic – an apt accompaniment to the driving thoughts behind the piece. A fish tank and a sofa sit in the same space as a poolside life-belt and a paper plane, speaking of a yearning for both adventure and hearth. It is, as the piece recognises, essential to our self-identity to have a sense of place, a sense of place that is as much defined by stories of the “other” as it is by the idea of home.

As Thorpe, Kelly and Andrade repeatedly emphasise, the stories they tell are all true, collected through a formidable process of research and reassembled in different formulations for each of the show’s incarnations, but the very theatricality of the piece inherently begs us to question this truth. And, of course, we are right to. For these can only ever be constructions of the truth, ephemeral simulacra in the same way as the photoshopped suits or the donkeys painted as zebras in Gaza zoo. As soon as a piece of information is passed on, it gains a new identity, clothed in a thin film of fiction.

Yet, as inaccurate and incomplete a cartography as they draw, there is something oddly comforting about the stories that this production collects in cupped hands. As one woman from the anecdotes recognises, stories are a way of staying alive, of passing down a legacy that might cross mountain ranges and oceans. Simple facts, like national borders, can melt, change and die away, but stories are ever present.

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