Voyager, New Diorama Theatre


Originally written for Exeunt.

What compels us to explore? It seems, at first, as thoughVoyager – its title a reference to the space probe launched by NASA in 1977, now the man-made object that has travelled furthest away from Earth – might attempt to answer this question. It follows Carrie, an English teacher who applies for a programme that is sending a teacher to Mars. It could be the opportunity of a lifetime. But she might not be able to come back.

Recently, space travel has provided a surprisingly rich theatrical seam. Alistair McDowall’s dizzying X has just finished its run at the Royal Court, while in 2014 Curious Directive addressed the possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the wide-ranging, ambitious Pioneer. The bar has been set high. Voyager, despite its promising premise, falls considerably short. It tantalisingly suggests a glimpse into the psychology of those who reach for the stars, but ultimately its story and its message are frustratingly earth-bound.

Carrie hears about the chance to go to Mars soon after losing her mother to Alzheimer’s. At first, she barely gives it a second thought, but then she discovers a tape left for her by her mother. Space exploration, as it turns out, might just be in her genes. She hears with excitement how her parents met while compiling the Golden Record – an audio-visual document of human life for any extra-terrestrials the probe might encounter – for the Voyager mission in the 1970s. A bit of her mother is still out there somewhere, propelled further and further away from Earth, and suddenly she feels the same pull.

The rest of the show is then a tug of war between Carrie’s impulse to leave and the commitments, especially to her partner Ben, which urge her to stay. This could offer a fascinating insight into the motivations of those who leave behind everything they know and love to explore new worlds, but it never digs quite that deep. We see Carrie’s anguished uncertainty, but not the mechanics behind her furiously whirring mental cogs. The Golden Record also feels like a missed opportunity, dropped into the narrative without being fully explored. And in the close yet shallow focus on Carrie, Idle Motion lose sight of the bigger picture of the complex desires and contradictions behind human space exploration. There’s not enough science for it to be science-driven and not enough character for it to be character-driven.

The plot, meanwhile, relies on some unlikely contrivances. The recorded voice of Carrie’s mother punctuates the story, providing timely revelations and reflections. But why wouldn’t Carrie listen to the whole tape to begin with? The stopping and starting message ends up feeling like a convenient narrative scaffold, diluting some of its emotional impact. The Mars mission likewise becomes little more than a catalyst for Carrie’s dilemma. Providing only the sketchiest of details about this NASA programme, the show leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered.

There is, though, a certain charm to Idle Motion’s storytelling that persists from earlier work. Ellen Nabarro’s versatile set, with its stylish geometric backdrop and collection of multi-purpose furniture, is smoothly and sometimes ingeniously used by the cast of five as they propel the story along. There are also some pleasing traces of the company’s physical work, though this movement is not deployed as strongly as it might be. Idle Motion do better with the small: beautifully observed little snatches of classroom conversation or tender moments of connection. Here, the vastness of space and the big ideas it invites about exploration, progress and human legacy elude the company’s delicate aesthetic.

Photo: Tom Savage.

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.