For all those who dream of time travel, that enduring obsession of physicists and sci-fi fans alike, there’s one way in which we already can defy the divisions of past, present and future. Look at the stars and you look back in time. The speed of light dictates that by the time the light of distant galaxies reaches us, what we are looking at is already hundreds of years old. The constellations that we blink up at in the night sky are actually no more than ghosts.
This is the central premise around which the Unicorn Theatre’s Something Very Far Away heart-breakingly revolves. Its star-gazing protagonist Kepler is well aware of the fact that “the deeper into space you look, the further back in time you see”. When his beloved wife is tragically killed in a circus accident, this magical fact of the universe becomes more than just another superfluous piece of knowledge; it becomes a promise, a guiding star for Kepler’s tireless pursuit of lost love. Knocking up his own homemade space rocket and hopping between the planets, telescope in hand, Kepler is constantly chasing the minutes that will inevitably snatch his sweetheart away from him again and again.
This moving story of a love greater than solar systems is narrated through a wordless combination of puppetry and animation techniques, filmed and projected live before our eyes. Its aesthetic marries the delicate paper manipulations of The Paper Cinema with a low-tech, almost childlike brand of puppetry, the rickety figures carrying a charming air of the homemade. The visibility of its crafting might be expected to detract from the story itself, but instead it only enhances it. As well as the ability to see the work of the performers adding to an audience’s awe at their sheer skill, this artistic choice compounds the narrative’s terrible weight of inevitability. We can always see what is coming next.
Meanwhile, the simple ingenuity of this approach is in many ways more impressive than a slick piece of animation could ever be. An audience is left helplessly, admiringly grinning by the use of water trickling through the bottom of a plant pot to represent rain, or by the intricate movement of slender paper figures against a painted backdrop. And for all its poignancy, the piece also incorporates charming, witty snatches of humour. As Kepler cobbles together his spaceship with nothing more than a hammer and a saw, his neighbours curiously drawn to the strange banging, there are surprising echoes of Wallace and Gromit. It’s A Grand Day Out with none of the cheese but a generous helping of emotion.
And it is this – this unadorned, generous, unapologetic emotion – that ultimately holds the piece together. By trusting entirely in its young audience’s comprehension of the challenging emotions it grapples with, Something Very Far Away effortlessly achieves that rare triumph of equally captivating both children and adults. Love, after all, needs little translation.