Writer: Natalie Songer
Director: Nicholas Barton-Wines
“Not all of this story is true,” confesses Natalie Songer at the outset, promising to shed light on dark matter as she shares a powerfully personal exploration of family, war and outer space. Now a successful and creative theatre maker, as a teenager she’d dreamed of being an astronaut, hence the connection she made with her uncle Tom, by then a leading NASA scientist.
Tom sent the young Natalie encouraging letters, and an airmail package containing On the Glassy Sea, his autobiography. Too technical, too dense, it was set aside on a shelf, “waiting for the right time to share its secret”. Tom’s death in 2011 was the catalyst for the journey which took her on pilgrimages along the Highway to the Stars and to Nordhausen, with its ordered archive and its ash graves. And finally, via a draughty church hall in Colchester, to this regional tour.
Impossible to pigeonhole this piece. Songer is an engaging speaker, and there is much humour here amongst the sadness. Her family reminiscences lead from dinner party recollections through philosophical musings – “all of Europe is a graveyard if you dig deep enough” to an unimaginably distant future, two million years from now, with humanity long forgotten and Jupiter 10 finally reaching Aldebaran, Taurus’s brightest star.
Director Nicholas Barton-Wines sets the monologue in a white-furnished space. A screen shows binary code and archive photographs. A table is covered with tapes and slides. There’s an old-fashioned wireless and a 35mm slide projector. On the floor, boxes: the “files, cabinets, vaults” of history. There is poetry in the words – the Dutch “moth-rain” is a motif – and symbolism in the props in the boxes. A tender shoot for baby Koko, flags for a journey, the string cut on the orange birthday balloon, empty plastic document sleeves for the thousands of victims of Kamp Dora. And, most moving of all, a stone for each of us, for remembrance, kept safe for the duration and placed at the end on the ash-grave memorial, among the white petals and the sand.
The audio element is sometimes less convincing – there are many voices in this journey, some voiced by Songer on microphone, others pre-recorded.
This is a tale of two brothers, Tom and Cor, great-great-uncles to Natalie. Their stories begin in rural Holland. Though there are years between them, they nevertheless remain close, both of them keen scientists, both of them active in the Dutch resistance. But their paths finally diverge: Tom ends his days in Arizona, Cor in Thuringia just days before the liberation of Eindhoven. The brothers were closer than they knew at the end, and although Tom always hoped his brother was shot in action or died in an air raid, Natalie chooses history over a happy ending, in what is an especially poignant part of her story.
Satellites is a uniquely inventive, and very personal, drama. As we filed thoughtfully out of the theatre, some talked quietly to Natalie, sharing their own family stories, proof, if any were needed, that this is much more than a performance piece.
Touring until 8 Novermber 2022