Originally written for Exeunt.
Much like the inevitable solo film trilogy, a piece that advertises itself as a one woman action adventure thriller is the sort of theatrical experience usually best avoided at the fringe. It sounds suspiciously as though it might involve a diluted Lara Croft figure and misguided martial arts. Jane Packman Company and consummate storyteller Lucy Ellinson, however, demonstrate that genre can be a tool for reinvention as well as a chain to confine.
The show’s staging, like its premise, is deliciously deceptive. Seats arranged around a circle enclosing nothing more than a ring of lights linked by fat, snaking wires, this would appear to be the height of theatrical minimalism. In a sense it is. As the piece progresses, however, the conceptual care behind each simple creative choice becomes ever more apparent. Nothing here happens by accident.
In the absence of any concession to naturalistic scenery, the tale that Ellinson spins takes place in the vast landscape of our imaginations. Seated in our circle of chairs, gazing across at one another, the audience configuration is reminiscent of the campfire – a forum for fantastical stories since stories began. As spectators, we are also fragmented, separated, identified as individuals rather than as part of an amorphous whole and thus forced to fully engage with the performance. Creeping around this circle, Ellinson conjures a flat, projected world, a Matrix-like illusion in which the human race are trapped and from which she alone can save them.
In this magical realist, two-dimensional space, there is an apt element of the graphic novel to the text’s vivid yet artificial frescos. One of the most vibrant scenes is that in which Ellinson’s character circles around Egypt in a taxi, ticking off colourful scenes of the surrounding market that summon a bustling mental picture, but one which snags uncomfortably on the corners of the mind; like the protagonist, we too can see the edges. Repeated images whirl past in aTruman Show carousel of fakery, seeming real but not quite real enough.
That my references are all to films is no mistake. It is from this art form that Jane Packman Company takes its stylistic cues, borrowing from Hollywood tropes and flitting schizophrenically from scene to scene in the manner of the scissor-happy action movie aesthetic. Lewis Gibson’s evocative soundscape, the piece’s one aid to the imagination other than the loop of flickering lights, is a nod to the surround-sound conventions of modern cinema, as noises emit from speakers dotted throughout the space and two sound boxes are passed between members of the audience.
The influence of film, among the most elaborately artificial and widely reproduced artistic mediums, also seems fitting for an imagined world constituted of signs. This flat world, this “desert of the real”, to borrow – as The Matrix does – a phrase from Jean Baudrillard, becomes an unsettling metaphor for a society which has accepted the flat, airbrushed reality of capitalism. In contrast to this steady stream of simulacra, the tricks of the production are all visible and unmasked, from the protruding wires of the lights to the sound boxes that travel from hand to hand – a method of staging that seems appealingly mutinous in itself. This may only be a story of resistance, but its rebellious sentiment is one that outlives the narrative.
At a festival where epic ambition is often traded in for intimate bite, Jane Packman Company has found a gorgeously simple way to happily marry the two. The literal space occupied by the piece is bare and compact, paced by Ellinson alone. But the cavernous realm of the imagination, unrestrained by practical limitations has far greater epic sweep than even the most immense of stages.