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… 😉
Ekata Theatre is an international theatre company based in London and Helsinki. Most recently seen in London with physical theatre piece On Mother’s Day, in November they’ll be back at the Cockpit Theatre with Unbelonger, as part of Voila! Europe Festival.
“Unbelonger is about the feeling of not belonging or not fitting in, being pushed out or pushed to the margin,” explains Ekata’s artistic director Erika Eva. “We’re creating our own world, where it’s not nationality or looks that set the protagonist apart, but a headscarf – and what I want to say with that is how artificial sometimes the borders are. She has a very close relationship with her scarf, which we’re bringing to life through object puppetry, and that’s the best relationship she has throughout her life; she doesn’t really fit into any groups, but she has that one bond. But also she realises that that’s the thing that sets her apart, and what I’d like to explore is that the one thing that sets us apart might be very integral to our identity, whether we end up loving or hating it.”
Devised by the company, a shorter work in progress version of the show was first performed at last year’s Voila! festival, and returns this year with a new cast and a broader perspective. “Last year we had the protagonist and her relationship to the scarf and we were looking at her in a school environment,” says Erika. “But now I want to make it a bit larger so we’re looking at different points of her life, because there’s a lot of discrimination and bullying in school but as we know it often continues after that.
“I’m saddened by the rising nationalism in many countries – in Britain, in Finland where I come from, in Europe and around the world. Our politicians are advocating that kind of message where we’re starting to divide people artificially, like the ban in the USA – there have been people living in the USA for a long time and suddenly they’re banned from living there.”
Erika established Ekata Theatre after graduating from East 15 last year, and Unbelonger was the company’s first production. “I’ve had a super year!” she says. “I’ve done five plays in two different countries, so it’s been a hectic year, which now comes full circle with Unbelonger coming back to London. I’ve learnt tons and I’ve got lots of really good experience, and I now know what I want to do, and the style that I’m going for has become a bit more clear.
“Ekata means unity in Sanskrit. Our idea is to do physical theatre that transcends national and linguistic barriers, and more and more we want to encourage cross-national work. Representation is a very big thing for us, we want to tell stories with diverse representation and I believe physical theatre is something that really unites, because it’s universal.”
That universality is reflected in Unbelonger’s diverse cast of four, who speak different languages as part of the show. “I’m a linguist so I love languages, I love playing with them,” says Erika. “I love the fact that you can understand sometimes even though you don’t speak the language, and that’s amazing, it intrigues me. Emotions and our physicality are universal, and that draws me to physical theatre because it can tell a story without a need for actual words.”
Another very important part of Unbelonger is the live music, from Ekata’s composer in residence Xavier Velastín, who hacks gaming controllers and motion-capture devices to control the sound design with his body. “Xavier is incredible,” says Erika. “Last year he created the music for Unbelonger with us, so as we were devising he was reacting to the actors and composing the music live. And this time we’re going to add a layer, because it’s at the Cockpit so we’re going to give him the lower gantry.”
The third member of the Ekata team is writer in residence – and Erika’s sister – Saaramaria Kuittinen, who wrote the company’s previous production, On Mother’s Day, based on seven years of correspondence with people on death row in the USA through a UK-based organisation, Human Writes. “The response to On Mother’s Day was really good, and we’re looking forward to hopefully bringing it back to other places. It is a very marginal theme and not very many people think that it’s an issue or know it’s an issue. The best feedback we got was that Human Writes got new volunteers through it, and that was one of the main goals – to raise awareness and to tell that story.”
With just two weeks until Unbelonger opens at the Cockpit, Erika and the team are excited to share it with new London audiences. “I think it’s going to be a magical play with object puppetry, some acrobatics and live music – and I don’t think people should miss out on that,” she says. “More than anything, what I want the audience to go away with is knowing what not belonging feels like; whether it’s something they can relate to or something that’s new, that feeling should come through – that’s what’s most important.”
“I could tell you I’m a good man… but you wouldn’t believe me.” Inspired by writer Saaramaria Kuittinen’s seven-year correspondence with prisoners on death row, On Mother’s Day from Ekata Theatre tells a heartbreaking tale that’s all too familiar. It’s the story of a crime – a violent, horrific murder that should never have happened. But it’s also the story of the man who committed it, his shame and guilt over what he’s done, and his desperate need to cling on to who he is in a world that’s specifically designed to dehumanise him.
Ramón (Christian Scicluna) is a murderer – but he’s also thoughtful, creative, funny and extremely likeable. He doesn’t try and make excuses, nor does he ask us to condone what he’s done. Instead, he shares with us his memories, which are all that he has left of his former life, and in doing so tells us all we need to know about the path that brought him here.
Those memories are recreated not only through Ramón’s words but by the mesmerising movement and physicality of ensemble members Lukas Bozik and Silvia Manazzone. The violent abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of his father; the party at which he met Maria, the love of his life; the precious childhood holidays at his grandma’s in the countryside – all are brought vividly to life and allow Ramón to step outside the confines of his tiny cell and experience in his mind a world he no longer gets to see, hear or touch.
Although, on the surface, the story told by On Mother’s Day is personal, not political, it’s difficult to watch it without feeling a growing sense of anger at a system that places retribution above rehabilitation, and utterly disregards the circumstances that may have led someone to commit a terrible crime. Ramón’s has been a life of violence, but at the hands of others, not his own. The crime for which he was condemned was, he tells us, the one time in his life that he acted without thinking – and yet it’s enough, in the eyes of the law, to wipe out any good he may have done or may go on to do in the future.
The set is simple – just Ramón’s cell, a metal bedframe and a small box of possessions, right in the centre of the stage. Director Erika Eva makes creative use of The Cockpit’s in-the-round stage area, however, extending it to include the high walkways that overlook the stage, and where the actors pace up and down like prison guards. The show also makes particularly effective use of light, which is used both as an interrogation tool and to create the play’s striking and desperately poignant final image.
I had a personal interest in seeing this show because I also have some experience of writing to prisoners on death row, and have been struck repeatedly by the wit, wisdom, compassion and astonishing creativity of men and women who’ve been written off by society. This is exactly what On Mother’s Day captures so well. However incongruous it may seem, Ramón is both a murderer and a good man; he deserves to be punished for his crime, but there’s so much more to him than the single worst thing he’s ever done. Although the current run is at an end, let’s hope it isn’t the last we see of this beautiful and heartbreaking story of life on death row, which succeeds not only as a piece of theatre but also as a powerful argument against the senseless violence of the death penalty.
On Mother’s Day ran at the Cockpit Theatre from 13th to 16th August. For more details about Ekata Theatre and future productions, visit www.ekatatheatre.com or follow @EkataTheatre.
The second production from Moonchild – following their debut last year with PLUTO – is the darkly comic Coelacanth. Written by Callum O’Brien, the play is set in a dystopian future where assisted suicide is not only legal but available at the touch of a button through a new app that lets you select your killer.
It’s not immediately obvious that Yvette (Lizzie Back) has invited a man to her flat to end her life; she’s spent hours getting ready and appears to have everything to live for. Nor does Morningstar (Jack Michael Stacey), on first encounter, look like a killer, though there’s clearly something odd about their meeting, which veers from cheekily flirtatious to deadly serious and back again before you can say Sylvia Plath. And yet as he begins his preparations, which include allowing an excited Yvette to choose how she wants to die, we can see the line between business and pleasure gradually begin to blur – not just for Morningstar but for the hundreds of eager followers watching via webcam.
Everything’s going according to plan until the moment Yvette’s housemate Rachel (Rebecca Camilleri) bursts into the flat. Seemingly unperturbed by the presence of a strange man in her friend’s bedroom, and blissfully unaware of what she’s walked in on, she decides to keep the party going with an enthusiasm that borders on manic, and which begins to shake her friend’s resolve.
Quite apart from providing a good twist in the story, and some much-needed light relief and a change of pace just as things are getting particularly sinister, Rachel’s entrance is interesting because at first glance she appears much more likely to be suicidal than Yvette. She’s drunk, she’s obviously been crying, nobody turned up to her birthday party except the gay guy she once had sex with, and – for reasons that are unclear – she’s drinking rose out of a plastic bag. Seeing her, we get to marvel all over again at how calm and collected Yvette is, given what she’s about to do. It’s a powerful reminder that you can’t always tell what’s going on inside someone’s head, even if they look like they’re fine.
The story does get a bit muddled around the middle, though, and while we may accept that she’s not as fine as she looks, it’s never really explained what actually has brought Yvette to this point. There are signs that all is not well in the outside world, and a suggestion that the apocalypse may be near, but whether that’s real or only in Yvette’s head isn’t really made clear. It also seems odd, given the obvious affection between the two girls and Rachel’s disdain for the app and those who use it, that Yvette would choose her best friend’s birthday to kill herself, knowing that Rachel would almost certainly be the one to find her when she returned home. In an otherwise intriguing and very well performed plot, these unanswered questions about the central character’s motivation prove to be a significant stumbling block.
That said, what the play does do extremely well is to keep us on edge. This is partly because we’re waiting to see how this bizarre and unsettling chain of events will end; director Liz Bacon skilfully builds the tension as the story builds towards its dramatic climax. But it’s also in no small part because O’Brien forces us to confront some issues we’d perhaps rather not face up to: like how well we know our friends, our obsession with technology, our macabre fascination with tragedy, and the fact that just because something’s legal (and easy), that doesn’t make it right.
By the way, in case you were wondering, a Coelacanth is a rare type of fish that was thought to have died out 66 million years ago, but was rediscovered in the early 20th century off the coast of South Africa. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite that long for a revival of this play.
Miriam Gould is a theatre-maker, performer, musician and writer. In August her first solo show, Empty Room, comes to the Camden Fringe, drawing on Miriam’s own experience and family history, and exploring the many ways in which music can help us survive.
“Empty Room is about a family unit – a mother, father and daughter, who each, in their way, are struggling with life and using music to cope,” she explains. “In a wider sense, it’s about parenthood, childhood, and music. The parents are jazz musicians and the daughter is obsessed with the Soviet neo-classical composer Shostakovich. All three are using music in different ways in order to survive. In their own ways, they’re all trying to find coping mechanisms for the absurdity of existence.”
Empty Room is a very personal project for Miriam, and was inspired by her parents, who were both jazz musicians: “The music in the show, some live, some recorded, is either written or played by my parents or Shostakovich – with whom I am genuinely obsessed,” she says. “My mother wrote some incredible songs which describe what was going on, with a poetry that gets to the heart of things in a way simple text could never do. I have always been struck by the power of music to communicate a depth of experience and emotion that we otherwise struggle to convey.
“From the age of 6, it was just me and my Mum, and the fact that she managed to be a parent as well as a jazz singer still baffles me. But mostly it inspired me to make my own way. My father died – spoiler alert! – and the amount of love and respect for him in the jazz community makes me proud even though I had nothing to do with it. So I guess, to give a really boring answer, my parents have inspired me. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s my mother’s compassion and forgiveness that infuse the show.
“Oh, and Shostakovich. He was amazing. He lived in a place and time where writing a symphony was a life or death scenario. And still he made the music he needed to make. Even though he was censored in every other possible way, and at times showed real cowardice in order to survive, he spoke the truth in his music. So, yeah. Did I mention I love him?”
Miriam started work on Empty Room all the way back in December 2014, and the following August performed a few works-in-progress in London and Canterbury. “It was just me, working in a room on my own. I’d never made my own work before. Then I got busy with other projects until November last year. I’d been wise enough to film the performances in 2015 and was able to show this to Alex Scott, the Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre, whom I very much wanted to be my dramaturg. I needed to not be on my own in a room for all the rest of the process.
“I’m currently in my last few days of tweaking the show based on feedback and how it felt to perform it in June when I had a couple of showings at Battersea Arts Centre. I really believe that sharing your work when it’s not finished, but you’re ready to share it, is so incredibly valuable. Especially with the right audience. BAC’s audiences are primed for scratch performances, so it’s such a great place to work and not be afraid of failing.
“When I first started working on the show, it was a revelation to me to perform as my mother and my father. I learnt so much about them by trying to get into their skin. It changed my life in a big way at the time. Now, I’m able to be more detached from the very close material. It’s obviously still important to be aware of how I’m doing emotionally throughout the performances, but the processing of the material happened in the rehearsal room.
“I love telling this story, more and more because of what it’s really about, and not because it’s autobiographical. I love sharing the idealism in it, the love and compassion, the passion and humour. I want to start a conversation with the audience. I always make a point to talk to as many people as possible after the shows, not to hear more about the performance, but much more to hear what it sparked in people’s minds or bodies.”
Although Empty Room is a very personal story, Miriam believes it will resonate with a lot of people: “I hope it allows people to rethink their relationship with their parents or children, especially if that relationship is strained. The younger version of myself in the show is very passionate and pretty awkward, so I think this will be familiar to how a lot of people feel even if they don’t show that side of themselves on a daily basis. I suppose I want it to be cathartic for the audience, that a space is created where they can have all the feelings and maybe connect with a younger, more naive part of themselves.
“On a less emotional level, I also hope that people will love the music, not just the jazz but also the Shostakovich. After the sharing in June someone said how rare it is for them to see someone play classical music. I have a massive bee in my bonnet about the (perceived?) elitism in classical music and I hope that by sharing some of the music I’m passionate about, some members of the audience might be tempted to seek it out for themselves.”
A unique feature of the show is The Survival Playlist. “Basically, each audience member is given a slip on which to write a song that has helped them get through a difficult time at some point in their life,” says Miriam. “If they want to share more about this, they are welcome to do so. There is also a Twitter handle – #SurvivalPlaylist – through which I have gathered some gorgeous submissions already. To begin with, it will be published and continually added to on my website with links to the songs. Eventually I would like to make this playlist available on other platforms as well, through Spotify and hopefully a podcast.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Survival Playlist is not the actual playlist itself, but the conversations and memories that it sparks, as well as the simple fact that music means so much to us, especially when we’re hitting rock bottom, and the playlist is a celebration of music as a survival tool.”
As well as making work on her own, Miriam is also an Associate Artist with Little Bulb Theatre and the co-founder of female theatre duo Double Trouble Theatre, whose work focuses on real-life events through soundscapes, poetic imagery and story-telling.
“In a lot of ways, the idealism of Empty Room echoes my own belief in the arts,” she says. “I am convinced that we have evolved to make art for a reason, it’s not just some frivolous thing to keep us busy in between the important stuff like shopping. At the same time, I wish we as a culture would view artists more like craftspeople, less like it’s some martyr’s calling, and more like an occupation. Which it is.
“I want the work I make to draw people in, so it must be entertaining, but I don’t just want to tell people what they know already, or even worse, not tell them anything at all. Finding the balance between communicating something deeper and meaningful and making work that doesn’t empty theatres, I guess that’s something most artists are trying to achieve.
“I see art as socially cohesive, which surely must be even more important now that we’re all constantly being divided and pitted against one another. I don’t want my audience to agree with me. I want them to engage in the work and respond, in whatever way is best for them.”