A play with no speech, no actors and not so much as even a glimpse of a human face? You can understand why I might have been skeptical about going to watch a performance created purely using shadow. Britain's Got Talent winners Attraction call themselves a 'black light theatre company' in which a small team of professionally trained dancers perform behind a screen, using their bodies and minimal props to morph into all kinds of objects, settings and characters accompanied by music and subsequently form some kind of narrative. Sound odd? I thought so too. But in the search of something different last week, off I tottered to the London Palladium to watch their first full length production, The Box.
The peace signs and bright colours adorning the three screens on stage (that's literally the only physical set there is) lead me to believe that the story begins in the hippie-dippie 1970s. We are introduced us to a couple - boy meets girl, they fall madly in love etc etc. So far, so Richard Curtis. However, things quickly take a dramatic turn when the lead female gets kidnapped while mopping the floors in the cafe that her and Mr Right presumably set up together. Then, things get a little confusing.
The couple, now separated, find themselves living completely distinctive lives. Our leading lady now seems to be in a relationship with the very man who kidnapped her while her former lover heads off to war...in the 1970s. Obviously he dies in battle, as does the kidnapper (not quite sure how that happens) leaving our leading lady pregnant and mourning the loss of her war hero whom she is never reunited with. The story then seems to become circular, as a daughter is born, the daughter falls in love, drama ensues...Richard Curtis.
That is a rather loose summary of what you can probably tell is an even looser plot. There are numerous unanswered questions, misplaced sequences and bizarre moments including a violent tsunami which kills the mother and a dream sequence reminiscent of the blue man group but with masks and uv light. The oddest, however, is undoubtedly the four minute long homage to America, out of nowhere we are suddenly bombarded with an abundance of patriotic imagery and music along with a Manhattan cityscape in which two towers eerily disappear - as you can imagine, this made for rather uncomfortable viewing.
This is clearly not a production company that abides by chronology: The Box takes us from the 1970s to WW1 to WW2 to 2001 and back again. Whats more, aside from the American episode, no geographical setting is ever indicated. Attraction completely transgresses Aristotle's unities of time and space. The effect is jilting, to say the least.
If this was a normal play I would have left feeling bewildered, frustrated and disappointed. However, I was enthralled from start to finish.
The Box is not a tragedy, nor a musical, nor a play. Attraction have completely transformed the traditional theatrical space. In a performance where there is no speech and no physical characterisation, fundamental values such as plot and structure become irrelevant, thus, placing the emphasis on the human experience of both the characters and audience.
The daughter, for example, is clearly getting bullied at school is one scene. A crowd of classmates steal her backpack, tip it upside down, and laugh - much to the daughter's humiliation. This is obviously a stereotypical narrative - however, given that shadow performance omits both dialogue and facial expression - her humiliation is expressed in a completely non-stereotypical manner: through shape. The dancers elegantly form a tower of large fingers twice her size, all are pointing down towards her from different directions. The impact is clear and dramatic and our empathy is magnified.
Another emotionally pungent moment is the death of the soldier, after which the stage becomes an array of candles. Then, the dancers gracefully morph into one large candle stage and somehow manage to make it look as if wax is slowly dripping from as it flickers ominously.
The candle then morphs into a large eye from which tears slowly and beautifully fall - this is mourning personified. Every movement on stage is so elegant and seamless - it's very easy to forget that every shape we see, from war tanks to blooming flowers, derives exclusively from human movement. One could argue that Attraction are stripping theatre back completely and that within this purity of form, emotion prevails.
Obviously, there are challenges with this kind of performance: how can you distinguish characters from one another when they are all shadows? It is how Attraction overcome these kind of challenges that make them so unique; what would typically be conveyed through action and dialogue is evoked through shape, music and movement. The kidnappers for example, are identified by their hats, sunglasses and cigarettes. When they enter the cafe, their shadows are three times the size than those of the couple - this instantly identifies their superiority in power.
The only visually distinctive factor between the two leading female characters was their hair styles - the mother was defined by her pony tail, her daughter - by pigtails. This establishes their relationship whilst also distinguishing them as individuals.
There is something so compelling about this unique form of storytelling that there could frankly be no storyline and it would still be entertaining to watch.
While the story undeniably lacked structure, the very nature of Attraction's performance was completely captivating - shadow performance takes theatre to another level by creating endless opportunities for storytelling that transcends the restrictions of traditional theatre.