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.