Originally written for Exeunt.
Caroline Williams is inundated with owl paraphernalia. Bags, cushions, figurines stuffed with stale potpourri. Owl faces peer out from all corners of the stage, eyes wide and unblinking, feathers a variety of colours. All that’s missing is a link to a YouTube video and the hashtag “cute”.
But Williams’ show, unlike the twee figurines that she passes around the audience, only flirts with whimsy. The painted owls are the echoes of a real one, the eponymous Puffball, who Williams looked after and nursed back to health a few years ago. After she and Puffball finally parted company, Williams tells us, friends and family suddenly flooded her with owl themed items, from soft furnishings to pieces of jewellery. The problem is, she doesn’t really want them.
This flurry of well-meaning but unwanted gifts is an apt metaphor for the darker, fast-beating heart of the show, buried beneath the fluffy feathers. At the same time as Puffball was recovering from his injuries, Williams was also trying to get better, although her wounds were not visible ones. Somewhere between the laughter, the figurines and the charmingly simple Microsoft Paint illustrations that are projected onto the back wall of the Yard, Puffball obliquely but painfully conveys the experience of depression. The owl offerings – simplified and infantilising versions of the real thing – can be read in this context as misguided attempts to understand the tangled complexities of mental illness; given with the best of intentions, but unhelpful nonetheless.
This is never quite as simple, however, as a human story seen through that of an anthropomorphised animal. True, Williams offers Puffball an acute, troubled consciousness, evocatively narrating his emotions – from the paralysing terror of falling from the treetop canopy to the numb apathy of his slow recuperation. But this is countered with an insistence that what we are being told is purely the “truth” about owls, an insistence that is reiterated by punctuating the show with a series of “owl facts”, delivered in the forcefully exuberant style of a children’s nature documentary. Williams implicitly acknowledges the absurdity of projecting human experience onto an owl, an acknowledgement that gradually folds the narrative back onto her.
Despite the personal proximity of events, which seeps through in brief but heartbreaking moments of vulnerability, Williams is a warm and involving presence, effortlessly recruiting her audience to take part in some of the show’s sillier sequences. One such scene involves us all standing up and flapping our arms, feeling at once daft and oddly joyous. The participation can at times seem clumsy and slightly detached from the piece as a whole, but perhaps this dislocation is fitting. We are kept at arm’s length from the experience of depression, itself an isolating illness. The most powerful point in the narrative arrives when Puffball and his human carer look at one another, recognising what the other is, but neither can hear the other’s words. In one devastating moment, connection is suggested, attempted and cruelly denied.
Photo: Paul Blakemore.