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Anyone attending a theatrical performance with the intention of being ‘made to think’ is setting themselves a challenge that is ultimately rewarding. Thinkers of the theatre don’t go it alone. Their appreciation of a show is aided by a clear narrative and theme laden dialogue; if the show is good, of course. I attended Upswing’s Fallen with a notepad in my hand and an observant expression on my face, but I got more than I bargained for. As a critic I was left with very little to work with, given that not a single word is uttered by any of the actors for the whole fifty minutes.
Some might dispute my reference to the four performers as ‘actors’ because of the lack of dialogue, but this visually stunning amalgamation of circus and theatre utilizes acrobatics and dance to convey every nuance of emotion that an expectant audience member desires. The narrative is entirely subjective. Nobody tells you what is going on; it is left to the audience’s mettle to make sense of the to-ing and fro-ing of the young African prisoner (Sera Adetoun) as she is swung majestically across the stage on a kirby wire. It would be a be a disservice to describe the the players as ‘circus performers’, particularly Garry Benjamin, who is able to make the switch from cold brute to prowling animalistic predator with a single shift of his facial muscles and posture.
In a spoken performance, background noise is jarring. In a voiceless movement piece, it has the opposite effect. All of the action is accompanied by a discordant soundtrack which alternates between a swelling drone, drumbeats and the distant sound of chatter. You wait for the music to to abruptly stop, to explode into a crescendo. This never once happens, so the entire piece is filled with tension, heightened by the stiffening fear that someone might do themselves an injury (Vicki Amedume being suspended by her neck had me clinging to my hair). To successfully shift the nerves one might suffer whilst witnessing an acrobat walk a tightrope to a piece of performance art is a testimony to the balance struck between stunts and stories.
The cynical amongst us might say that the athleticism on display adds very little to the story and is simply tacked-on, like a hastily cobbled mismatch rather than the smooth blend that I believe it is. However, given that the play is largely set (to my mind) within the dreams of the young captive, the surreal situations are justifiably carried out in the most unsettling, psychedelic way possible. In dreams, we float, helplessly endure being manhandled, and everything is abstract. So the story is told by a stream of metaphors; the prisoner is swung round the room and examined by the guards, who calmly move us from one part of a nightmare to the next by rearranging two trampolines on the stage to resemble beds, prisons and other restrictive vestibules. In dreams, the people we try to escape from are seemingly everywhere. Their heads poke around every corner, they are behind every door. Imagine, if you will, a nightmare in which you are being chased down a corridor by Michael McIntyre, whose face appears in all its insufferable glory everywhere you turn. This familiar scenario is interpreted by the officers blocking the captive’s path everywhere she moves, and that’s all part of the appeal – For once, draw parallels from the performers not with ourselves, but our dreams.
But for all its brilliance, I was irked to find a description of the plot in the programme that was handed to me on entry. If a written synopsis tells you more about a performance than the show itself, then it loses a lot of its subjectivity; fortunately I watched the show before I read it.
What makes Fallen such an accessible piece is that it has just the right amount of ‘wow’ and ‘hmm’ (in laymen’s terms, excitement and provocation) to exhilarate both the casual and seasoned audience member. It takes circus, one of the basest forms of exhibition, and makes it both visually stunning to watch and intellectually stimulating to ingest. It caters for two markets, and neither of them are left bored or eager for it to end. The run time is brief and well paced enough to include only the most satisfying amount of visual art, but it would appear that this new genre has yet to discover the capabilities to tell a story that is slightly more complex and progressive. Only the one sense, of entrapment and trauma, is dwelled upon, and little else. Let us hope that the company expands its ambition in order to tell different, longer stories.
If you’re in Keswick, Southampton or London this March, make an effort to seek out the rest of ‘Fallen’s run. 3/5.