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BRIGHTON FESTIVAL: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings – Sallis Benney Theatre

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Directed by Dan Colley

At the outset of this retelling of a Gabriel García Márquez short story we are informed “there’s no lesson in it so don’t go looking for one”. Manus Halligan and Karen McCartney from the Riverbank Arts Centre in Kildare come across as passive conduits for their tale, which seems to flow through them almost against their will. They can tell us there’s no lesson in it all they want but it’s an experience that blossoms with meaning throughout.

Our two narrators begin as a couple plagued by crabs scurrying into their home and disturbing the peace of them and their new-born baby. As McCartney narrates, Halligan makes the sound of the crabs into a microphone. Their baby is portrayed with a pink jumper McCartney takes off and scrunches into her arms to cradle. The dynamic of a bickering couple enlivens not just the characters but the storytellers as well. Irritated looks are exchanged as one or the other seems to get something wrong, though most of the time they complement each other perfectly.

A boundless imagination directs the techniques they use to illustrate the narrative. There’s a joy in witnessing the ever increasing audio/visual arsenal used to tell how this old man with enormous wings comes into their lives, the question on everyone’s lips being “is he an angel?”

Centre stage is an intricate diorama of figures created out of wood and wire and paper. Cameras are used to project close-ups of the crudely constructed townspeople who flock to see the old man whom the couple have placed in a chicken coop for public display. If it weren’t for these projections it would have been difficult to discern the details of the figures, so tiny and distant are they. It also gives the feel of an intrusive TV camera crew sensationalising the story of the monetisation of a potentially divine being for the evening news.

The couple provide voices for the characters – the incomprehensible ramblings of the old man himself and the self-involved questioning of the townspeople who come to see the spectacle. Songs are created live using a loop pedal to build up layers of harmony. It’s all done effortlessly and magically, an example of technology seamlessly employed to create a landscape of beguiling effects, coming to a beautiful, emotional climax in the final scene.

The performance is suffused with a humour that is pleasing for both kids and adults, the two storytellers teasing us with an awareness of their silliness without ever breaking their façade of seriousness. Whenever it seems like someone is being funny by accident, it’s all the more uproarious.; not only do they achieve this effect throughout but they also master the trick of communicating emotion, pathos and real human meaning as if by accident. Like a pair of idiot savants they reveal the power of the story itself to present its own depth, though in actual fact it’s helped along the way by what amounts to an impressive amount of artistry.

Reviewed on 20 May 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Beguiling storytelling

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