Django in Pain – Brighton Fringe

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writer and Director: Antonio Vega

Externalising the intricacies of depression, self-harm, and even suicidal tendencies can manifest in a profoundly personal series of creative outlets. And for Antonio Vega, Django in Pain is such an expression of suffering, crafted and communicated using puppetry’s various techniques, from shadows to papercraft. Puppetry, as an offshoot concerning animated methods of filmmaking, is met with a perturbed eyebrow raise to the validity of its storytelling mechanics outside of ‘just for kids’ – nonsense.

But this isn’t the case here, as the imagery of Django in Pain is remarkably painful in moments – and for a puppet show does not fail to communicate the delicacies and vicious methods of suicide. Multidimensional layers exist both in Ana Graham’s capture of Vega’s performance, but also within the often-humorous script with razor edges of grief as Django, a man living out in the woods, struggles with continuing his life, seeking to end it – only for a stray dog, Trippy, to keep getting in the way.

Trippy becomes Django’s world, but if only he had recognised this sooner. Driving the now three-legged pooch away, the show takes a dynamic shift in colour expression as Django’s mind unfurls and explodes with all the various places, he and Trippy could have visited, from the deep forests to the even deeper seas and the skyscrapers of New York. Here the shadow puppetry enables Graham’s cinematography to press more into the shading and manipulation of light, accentuating the colours surrounding Django and escaping the grimness of the dark for just one scene, and away from the wolves and vultures lurking.

But the vultures of this tale manifest more than trivial antagonists, breaching out of the story and plaguing the narrator (Vega) himself, berating his silly and trivial stories and drawings, confusing and gnawing at the last remnants of self-confidence. It offers a wit to Vega’s writing which extends outwards from the world-building within Django’s story and into the strife of an artist anxious with their work.

Vega’s role as narrator, as well as their brief introduction to the piece, offers a sense of therapy, pressing into the existential questions of how this playwright controls the lives, deaths, and agony of the cast he writes for, himself struggling with the inability to see a happy ending. There’s a wealth of storytelling behind the scenes here, especially within Cristóbal Maryán’s audio and music composition, but Django stumbles in the coming together of each component, as the music, storytelling and puppetry all work singularly but less so as a coherent piece.

Further, complaints about the quality of filming, both in technical terms and limitations of space come to an understanding as the film is produced on a mobile phone during lockdown, all within Ana and Antonio’s apartment, where the puppets and scenery are sculpted, not from an artist’s studio, but from materials and recycled pieces found throughout the space. Commendable, but as a piece of physical theatre it means much of the puppetry is ‘hands-on’.

Mercifully, Django in Pain, without revealing the tenderness of the ending, does have a form of happiness – or at the very least, contentment in its ending. A feature-length puppet show made, staged and filmed in lockdown, it serves as a reminder of the escapist techniques we craft in traumatic times, and the dextrous skill in creating with our hands, using only some scrap materials and a personal story to share.

Runs here until 5 June 2022

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