Anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t quite fit in will be able to relate to Ekata Theatre’s haunting piece of physical theatre, Unbelonger, which returns to London as part of the Voila! Europe Festival for the second year in a row. Though the piece tells one young woman’s very unique story, the emotions and sense of isolation it conveys are so broadly universal that it has something to say to almost everyone.
The central character, played by Janaki Gerard, is marked out as different from the start by the fact that she, unlike everyone else, wears a scarf (as an accessory; importantly, it has no overt religious connotations). As we follow her through school, dating and work, we see her repeatedly excluded from the groups that everyone else seems to fit into with such ease, although whether this exclusion is imposed on her by others or by herself is left open to interpretation. And yet when she tries to free herself from the thing that makes her different – in this case, her scarf – she’s left feeling incomplete and more alone than ever.
Directed by Erika Eva (who also stepped in to perform at this particular performance, alongside Durassie Kiangangu and Silvia Manazzone, after cast member Tongchai Hansen sustained an injury shortly prior to the show), the action takes place on a largely empty stage, lit by four bare bulbs that represent different stages of our protagonist’s life. Creative use is made of a handheld lamp, and wooden crates that become rucksacks, a candlelit dinner table, and business briefcases – but the most important item on stage is the scarf, which comes to life as a character in its own right in the hands of Silvia Manazzone. Through this object puppetry, we come to understand the close relationship between the young woman and her scarf, and see how this dynamic evolves as the story develops.
In addition to the physical movement on stage, sound and light play a hugely important role in setting the tone of the piece. Composer and musician Xavier Velastín, on the Cockpit’s gantry, is almost as fascinating to watch as the cast on the ground, as he creates unique audio effects through his own body movement. This is particularly effective at moments in which the central character feels most isolated from her peers, as a harsh blue light floods the stage and the sound of distorted voices creates a deeply unsettling and alienating atmosphere.
Although the show features very little in the way of spoken word (at least in English – several other languages feature prominently), the emotions it seeks to evoke come through loud and clear. Unbelonger doesn’t seek to make any particular statement; we can choose to interpret the protagonist’s scarf in a multitude of ways – as an indicator of race, gender, sexuality, age, class, or almost any other human characteristic that might set us apart from others. What we can all agree on, however, is how effectively the piece conveys the feeling of being excluded and alone, and the frustration of knowing that what causes us to feel that way might also be the one thing that makes us who we are.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉