Deciphering – New Diorama Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Creators: curious directive and Bombo

Director: Jack Lowe

Deciphering is a new and magical piece of theatre. At its heart is a descent deep into a cave in Indonesia where an extraordinary series of cave paintings has been discovered – not just representations of animals, but clear patterns of of mysterious geometric signs.This discovery will change our understanding of everything – a language system that must have existed millennia before conventional dating by paleoarcheologists.

We experience the wonder of this discovery by the highly imaginative immersive presentation. Clever multi-media effects give us glimpses of everything from the changing view from a jeep-ride to glimpses of the cave symbols themselves. The lighting design playfully reminds us of the power of darkness. Through headphones we hear a varying sound world. Deep in the caves there is the constant dripping of water.

Two adventurous researchers descend into a narrow fissure in the limestone rocks. One abseils down from the ceiling. Together they crawl through the space under the stage – a claustrophobic presentation of navigating narrow caves.

This fiercely original piece has been devised in a collaboration between the extraordinarily inventive team, curious directive and the Indonesian collective Bombo. An ensemble of seven talented actors (Amanda Hadingue, Asha Sylvestre, Farah Qadir, Lewis Mackinnon, Mohamad Faizal Abdullah, Sarita Gabony and Stephanie Street) play all the parts.

The scenes switch back and forth in time. In a humid classroom in Jakarta an enthusiastic young Scottish teacher, Kenny, prepares for his new job. An authoritarian administrator lays out the rules. In contrast, the charming local handyman, Reza, effortlessly bridges the cultural gap, incredulous that the young man can’t sing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Eight-year-old Elise appears (played by an accomplished child of similar age) and the young man instantly engages with her. Together, despite the classroom’s limited resources, the pair explore. They paint. He shows her how to develop photographs. Through play she learns about deep time – the age of the earth and the study of paleography. Dancing in the Dark becomes their anthem.

In another scene Elise is now a brilliant young woman being interviewed at a French university. She proposes to research her audacious hunch that certain Indonesian cave signs are a form of communication. The rigidly Eurocentric French academic system rebuffs her. How can she hope to study a subject that crosses two entirely separate disciplines, paleoarchelogy and linguistics? The underlying worry is that such research might undermine belief in France, with its Lascaux cave paintings, as the epicentre of paleoanthropology.

This strait-jacketed approach defeats Elise. Yet the play continues to return to that early classroom and her experience of being taught to wonder, to ask questions, to look for patterns. Only in middle age comes the unexpected call that brings her back to Indonesia and the real adventure of exploring the caves. There is something of the thrilling reveal of the Neolithic pictographs of the Cave of Swimmers in Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient.

There is more to Deciphering – perhaps too much more. There is a fair amount of plot, told in flashback, to the love story of Elise’s parents and a rather complicated series of scenes which suggest the alternative careers Elise could have followed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is the repeated question, mirroring the play’s central concern with patterns and possibilities.

Deciphering is intent on spelling out its message about having courage and being prepared to make mistakes. But the show has already converted us to the wonder of everything.

Runs until 2 October 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Magical immersive theatre

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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