Director: Joyce Lee
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
On the courtyard of Halifax’s eighteenth-century textile trading headquarters, The Piece Hall, are protesters with placards demanding Zara’s rights. Cherry pickers, heavy plant machinery and even a tank lie in wait for their cue as fake rolling news coverage ramp up the expectation of the birth of Zara’s baby.
Part narrative, part light installation and part spectacle, Bradford based theatre company Mind the Gap’s Zara is a huge theatrical event designed to raise awareness of parentage, especially from learning disabled parents. The company has been making work with learning disabled artists for over thirty years and have now collaborated with outdoor arts specialists, Walk the Plank, to make their boldest piece of work on a scale so large it forces recognition. Director Joyce Lee had a mission to make the piece so big that people had to take notice. And with a baby the size of two double-decker buses, operated by nine puppeteers, Zara is a piece that has succeeded in attracting much attention.
Today is Zara’s due date. Zara (Joanne Haines) is learning disabled. The future of her baby girl is in doubt as teams of protesters express a simplified, binary view on the ethics surrounding parenting with learning disabilities. Joyce Lee blows up this debate to gigantic proportions; physically with a 22 feet baby gurgling and crying, and metaphorically as the situation is more akin to an international diplomatic crisis unfolding with the world on the brink of destruction. It’s a clever twist that runs parallels with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – although the mammoth dimensions are never acknowledged. A ‘trained negotiator’ zooms in an out of the courtyard on the back of an American style 4 x 4 and when negotiations requesting the surrender of the baby fail, the army is called in, with a tank, to demand the relinquishment of the giant infant to the authorities. It is all balanced with a more amusing side as yellow streamers explode from behind the giant baby in what has been affectionately described a ‘poo-mageddon’ – requiring a choreographed team to clear up the mess donned in yellow bio-hazard suits. With a community cast of 100 learning and non-learning disabled, director Lee states that she wanted to make a piece of theatre somewhere between Godzilla and the Paralympic opening ceremony.
It would be unjust to say that the centre-piece of the show is the enormous infant puppet – rather the colossal effort Mind the Gap has exerted in preparing the huge cast, the casting of learning disabled artists in the major roles and the logistics of mounting a production on this scale. That said, Francis Morgan’s puppet design is superb. At first loud and monstrous it softens as its puppeteers allow it to breathe and waggle fingers; its bright blue eyes dazzling as it takes in its small scale surroundings. Purposefully set after sunset, Illuminos’s projection around the courtyard is visually stunning – none more so that its focussed projection onto the baby itself, coupled by moving verbatim audio testimonies of parents with learning disabilities. The whole event is scored by Sarah Llewellyn’s entrancing music as a giant dummy, feeding bottle and quilt are ‘crowd-surfed’ to soothe the infant. At times, the score is imperative as the pace of the project can become a little pedestrian. Static and wordy scenes between actors on cherry pickers sit uncomfortably with the size of the project and narrative drive is sacrificed for overall spectacle.
There is no doubting that this is an absurd piece of theatre, designed to supersize the issue of disability and parenthood. For the cynic, it could be accused of bordering on agitprop, but for the main, it is a celebration: of parenthood, of community, and of what can be achieved.
Reviewed on 19th April. Runs until 20th April at The Piece Hall, Halifax and 10th/11th May at Geraldine Mary Hamsworth Park, London