1927: Roots [Edinburgh International Festival]

1927: Roots [Image Gaelle Beri]

Until 25th August

English theatre company 1927 have brought their production Roots to Edinburgh’s 350-seater Church Hill Theatre in Morningside for the duration of the International Festival, using music, theatre and projected animation to bring to life thirteen ancient folk-tales, many old enough to be uncertain of their countries or times of origin.

Writing in the programme, writer and director Suzanne Andrade – one of the four performers on stage – explains how she was drawn to the tales for their stark simplicity and oddness, and how she was struck by their matter-of-fact inconsequence, reminiscent of the tone of our familiar children’s tales but quite plain when detached from the moral portent that has infused folk-tales as they have developed over the centuries. In the manner of a rocking boat on cartoon waves, the stories and characters do not always behave as might be expected, the surprises sometimes uplifting, sometimes disappointing, the good-versus-evil axis we rely is often missing, and the story seems insouciantly to go where it wants to, – it just is what it is, so to speak; and with the usual dramatic arc of plot development flattened, the surreal, the morbid and the hilarious are allowed to play equal parts without affecting an outcome that could be anybody’s guess.

The performers comprise just two actors (Andrade and Esme Appleton) and two musicians (Francesca Simmons and David Insua-Cao), with each tale taking five to ten minutes in telling, as the actors interact with careful precision with an ever-moving projected backdrop of stop-frame animation, and multi-textured music, which combine in a quite magical compendium of colourful and compelling storytelling. The recorded narration is voiced by the performers’ friends and family members in an unexcited, often deadpan delivery, which, in conjunction with the actors’ fleeting, unsentimental lines enforces the matter-of-fact tone – which takes a little while to acclimatise to, but after a couple of stories you’re used to the pleasure of not knowing what’s going to happen next, and anticipating the unhinged. There’s a hilarious moment when the narrators are allowed to say what they thought of the story they have just told.

Paul Barritt’s projected animation, which plays a leading role in its carefully-synchronised interaction with the performers, is an ever-bubbling font of engaging visual ideas and jokes that collide the flickering noir of German expressionist cinema such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with monochrome line illustration recalling say Aubrey Beardsley, linocut or pop art collage, often rendered in a rough-edged scissor-cut style recalling Terry Gilliam, Richard Hamilton or any number of illustrated children’s books. Apart from the protracted process of producing them, the technical challenge of eliminating shadow with spot-lit performers has been cleverly surmounted, with the pace and tone of the animation’s constant procession of  playing a key part in conveying the story’s mood.

Originally composed on piano by Lilian Henley, the musical ‘accompaniment’ (again, really a lead role) is voiced through an eclectic range of percussion – bells, dulcimer, donkey-jaw-bone, castanets – and recorders (two played at once) with strohviol, violin, viola and bass guitar. The soundscape reinforces the driven, restless pace, reinforcing the light and shade of the stories’ often surreal twists, often recalling  Weimar theatre, both in its aesthetic and in its macabre predisposition – maybe no surprise given the company’s name, 1927.

The title story is the final one, in which two siblings plan their escape from their burdensome mother but wake to find they are connected permanently and inextricably to their mother by giant umbilical tree roots – and this characterises the bleak severity in the imagination of these gloriously odd tales, here dazzlingly presented and beautifully described with an obvious affection for the grim comedy at its heart.

Church Hill Theatre,
33 Morningside Road EH10 4D

[Image: Gaelle Beri]

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