Un/Familiar Fringe: Un/Afraid

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 1 September 2009

The backstage adage about not relying too heavily on technology in the theatre holds particularly true at the Fringe. If your fancy audiovisual equipment can’t be trusted to work 100 per cent of the time in a purpose-built, professionally run space, then it definitely can’t be trusted in a temporarily converted lecture theatre staffed by enthusiastic volunteers.

And yet physical and multimedia company Precarious continue to tempt fate and get away with it. Like their 2008 triumph The Factory, anomie is pure techie eye candy. Six giant flatscreen TVs are the set and often parts of the performers, too, synchronising prerecorded and rotoscoped footage with live movement so the cast can appear to fall or step or crawl partially or fully inside the false-coloured world behind the screens. As if that wasn’t enough, precise projection onto gauze or plastic film creates eerily floating apparitions: flowers or shimmering green curtains of binary code. And it all works.

Unlike The Factory, however, anomie’s multimedia aspect limits, rather than enhances, its physical theatre aspect. There are too many long scenes of performers thrashing and squirming on mattresses with their heads inside television sets, and too few of the Gestic tableaux that made The Factory a statement, rather than a technical exercise. Anomie only comes close to equalling The Factory’s images of people packaged and stored like meat when it casts aside the screens in favour of tangible props, like the reams of shiny black videotape that entangle a camcorder voyeur, or the mattress through which two potential lovers blindly explore one another.

New physical theatre company Idle Motion embrace tangible props to create onstage imagery from the very beginning in their gentler, necessarily smaller-scale production Borges and I. Stacks of second-hand books litter the stage, and their torn, clipped, punched, removed and rebound pages tumble out to form silhouetted skylines, or combine to represent an aeroplane, or stack to form a treacherous spiral staircase for Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges to stumble around as he gradually loses his sight.

The play is a tearjerker without being maudlin, and the inventive use of books and their pages as props, characters and scenery pieces is consistently surprising and delightful, whereas anomie’s invention, while undeniably technically masterful, soon becomes repetitive. Which just goes to show: even if you can defy precedent and rely on your technology to work, you still can’t rely on it to carry your show for you.

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