Review: Unbelonger at the Cockpit Theatre

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.

The final performance of Unbelonger is at the Cockpit Theatre on 12th November.


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… 😉

Interview: Erika Eva, Unbelonger

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.”

Watch the trailer for Unbelonger, and book now to see the show at the Cockpit Theatre, 9th-12th November.

Review: On Mother’s Day at the Cockpit Theatre

“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.

Review: Knock Knock at RADA Festival

Now in its seventh year, the annual RADA Festival brings together past graduates and a network of theatre-makers from different backgrounds in a ten-day celebration of new writing, emerging talent and the possibilities of theatre today. Key among the aims of the festival is to ensure that theatre is open to all; in line with this objective, tickets start at £5 and the three headline shows each place a strong emphasis on accessibility.

For Hot Coals Theatre, this is nothing new: since 2008 the company has specialised in work that’s fully accessible to d/Deaf and hearing audiences, and their latest show Knock Knock is also designed to be accessible to all ages. highly visual performance style, combining comedy, clowning and physical theatre, removes any need for spoken word or sign language while still ensuring the story and its message are easy to understand.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Modern fairy tale Knock Knock tells the story of a woodcutter whose solitary existence is interrupted when a woman he’s never met before knocks at his door. It’s love at first sight, but when they both succumb to the pressure to live up to “traditional” gender roles, the happiness of their perfect union is threatened. Can they see past what’s expected of them and live the way they want to, or is their relationship doomed?

It’s impossible not to be charmed by the story’s loveable characters, who are brought beautifully to life by Hot Coals founders Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English. Spoken word proves to be unnecessary as the two communicate their thoughts and emotions through movement and facial expressions (Sargeant’s twinkly eyes above her bushy beard are a particular highlight). We share all their joy and heartbreak, and also enjoy some moments of cheeky humour that lift the characters out of the two-dimensional fairy tale world and make them real, imperfect human beings we can relate to.

A meticulously observed set also aids the storytelling, dividing the stage in two so the characters can move easily between their cosy living room and the mysterious, magical woods just outside their door. The structure of the show is based around the establishment of patterns; the opening sequence takes turns to introduce the two characters in their individual routines, while the second half of the story shows how their domestic activities change little by little as each day passes. Visually this works very successfully to demonstrate the gradual transition in their lives – we can see the way things are going long before they do – although the musical soundtrack does start to become a bit overbearing by the third or fourth repetition.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Sweet, funny and with a powerful and very topical message for audiences of all ages, Knock Knock packs a surprising emotional punch. Within minutes, I was completely caught up in the story and rooting for the characters to resist the stifling social expectations that stand in the way of their happy ever after, both as a couple and as individuals. All in all, it’s a very worthy headliner for the RADA festival, and hopefully a show with a great future.

Catch Knock Knock at RADA Festival 2018 until 7th July.

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…

Interview: Josie Underwood, Follow Suit

Silent Faces was founded at Goldsmiths in 2015 by Josie Underwood, Cordelia Stevenson and Jay Wakely, with the aim of making brave, ridiculous, unique and challenging theatre. Their show Follow Suit was nominated for the Brighton Fringe Award for Best Young Production in 2016, and now heads north to Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard.

“People should see Follow Suit because it’s ridiculous and funny, with a bit of liberal rage thrown in,” says co-founder Josie. “It’s a darkly comic take on the morally neglectful world of high finance, four clowns in an office distracting themselves in the most ridiculous ways possible from the skeletons in their stationery cupboard.

“We wanted to make a show that tackled a big issue like corporate responsibility, through clown and comedy. It seems a bizarre idea to smash together clowning with corporations, but it was a challenge we were excited to undertake! We love clown and physical theatre, but also want to make work that challenges, all the while entertaining its audience.”

With just a few days to go until their Edinburgh debut, Silent Faces are looking forward to the experience, and particularly seeing audiences’ reactions to the show. “We’ve worked on this production for so long, and we are incredibly excited to share it with the wonderful audiences that flock to Edinburgh Fringe,” says Josie. 

“And there are so many other shows that we’re excited to see this year: Superbolt’s two shows, Mental by Kane Power Theatre, Gecko, Different Party and Trygve vs a Baby, and so much more. We’re also gutted that we won’t be able to see Not I by Touretteshero – which looks right up our street and we will definitely be encouraging everyone to see!”

Silent Faces aim to make their work accessible to as many people as possible, and Follow Suit was recently included in a round-up of Disability Arts International’s picks of the Fringe 2017. It does come with a bit of a health warning for younger audience members, though: “It’s not for kids, because it does get a bit gruesome, but we think anyone would enjoy Follow Suit,” says Josie. “As an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled artists, we were really keen to make work that is accessible to all adult audiences – and as a show that relies mainly on comedy and physicality, Follow Suit is accessible to an international audience.

“Above all else, we hope audiences will be entertained. While the content is in essence political, we don’t want to stand on a soap box and shove our views down our audiences’ throats. Instead we want them to enjoy the comedy, the silliness and the journey that our clowns go on.”

Follow Suit is at Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 9th, 14th, 15th, 21st) at 12.45pm.