A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: a unique dramatic experience

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: a unique dramatic experience

7th December 2017 By Alex Murdoch

As soon as I had entered the Burton Taylor studio, I was immediately aware that The Wax House adaptation of García Márquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings would be unlike any dramatic work I had so far encountered on or off the Oxford stage. Full in the knowledge that the audience members had been blindfolded in the evening’s earlier performance of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, I had assumed that I would be without my vision for the duration of the performance and was frankly wondering how I was going to manage to take any notes. This was far from the case; entering the theatrical space, I was first figuratively greeted by a small arrangement of microphones and scripts, surrounded by a variety of household objects, and then literally greeted by a member of the cast. It was explained to me that the play was going to be a Relaxed Performance, designed specifically to accommodate individuals with learning disabilities or sensory disorders, and as a result I was under no obligation to remain silent, in my seat or in the auditorium for the duration of the performance. While I wholeheartedly appraise the intention of the director and appreciated the sentiment of the actor, as I had been invited along by the marketing manager, I did admittedly feel slightly more obliged to remain tethered to my seat than perhaps the rest of the audience. It was also explained to me that the performance was going to be of a ‘live radio play’ in which, in the hope of removing any pretence, the actors would create numerous sound effects onstage in front of the viewing audience. It is with this description of the performance that I have my principal reservation, as in my opinion the show is simply not a radio play. Nor, for that matter, is it especially theatrical. In reality, what The Wax House has produced in the Burton Taylor is a truly charming and inventive piece of theatre which is only impeded by its inability to correctly describe its original conception.

The short story from which the performance has been adapted belongs to the genre of magic-realism, which, for all those that did not have the questionable pleasure of studying Angela Carter at A Level, essentially involves planting supernatural elements into otherwise realistic or mundane settings. In the case of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, the supernatural comes in the form of the titular winged pensioner and the mundane in the form of a coastal town. A villager named Pelayo (Ebruba Abel-Unokan) discovers the Very Old Man (Alex Christian) collapsed in his muddied courtyard following a brutal storm, and after informing his wife Elisenda (Laura Henderson Child), who in turn seeks the guidance of the local wise-woman (Jessie Goetzinger), the villagers come to the conclusion that the being must be a fallen angel. Prompted by their son’s apparent change in health and the possibility of marketing this supernatural attraction, Pelayo and Elisenda decide to enclose the Very Old Man in their chicken coup so that they may charge other villagers to come and witness the supposedly celestial being. This scheme succeeds until a new spectacle arrives in town, a woman changed into a spider (Jeevan Ravindran), at which point the Very Old Man is forgotten by all except Pelayo and Elisenda, who subsequently are forced to nurture the creature through its infirmary.

The nature and content of the story lends itself superbly to the intentions of the performance. The five actors are given the opportunity to perform a spectrum of roles, switching expeditiously between a variety of characters and voices. Perhaps the most notable dexterity of voice-work is apparent in the performances of Christian and Goetzinger who, in addition to portraying the wheezing Very Old Man and the jeering wise-woman respectively, each take on the role of the son at different stages in his infancy. Moreover, the abundant opportunities within the story to represent numerous sounds, including heavy rain, blustery wind, opening doors, scrubbing floors, rustling coins, rattling cages, flapping wings and beating hearts, are taken full advantage of through the deployment of a variety of Foley Effects. For those as clueless as I, Foley Effects are sound effects which are often added to films in post-production to improve the sound quality of actions which are harder to capture during the filming process, such as running, punching, opening doors or any other dynamic actions. Whereas Foley Effects are generally used to enhance the reality of a performance, in this instance the visible representation of the sound effects keeps the audience at a distance from the narrative, which proved to be delighting if not bemusing. It is here that I must return to my aforementioned comment that The Wax House seem to have misinterpreted their performance as a live radio play. Despite the suffixation of ‘live’ I am sure any audience would anticipate that a ‘radio play’ would be a predominantly auditory experience. However, in the case of this adaptation, I would dispute that the audible is fighting a tense battle with the visual, a battle which the audible does not necessarily always win.

Throughout the play, the sea shanty ‘Drunken Sailor’ is deployed to mark scene transitions and the passage of time. Later in the play it is undoubtedly effective, the deep melody cutting through the dialogue and distinctly shifting the atmosphere to progress the narrative. Yet, when the shanty is first sung at the start of the play, the rendition is partnered with a simple and seemingly unnecessary ambulation of the actors around the microphones which added little to nothing and ultimately instigated my anxiety regarding the audible versus visual nature of the performance. This is swiftly followed by an immersive sound scape which, through variously pitched whistling and the scattering of small objects, simulated excellently the stormy conditions which open the story. Unfortunately, the sound scape culminates in Ravindran opening a laundry bag and flailing it aggressively side-to-side to induce the sound of a battering wind. If my vision had been deprived, I am sure I would have been enthralled; although, in this instance, admittedly the sight of the ballooning bag whipping above the seated actors ultimately evoked a sense of bombast often (derisively) depicted in (parodies of) interpretative dance.

Elsewhere in the performance, there was undoubtedly some incongruity between the intent and the performance as a result of the visualisation and direction of the voice actors. Although I praised Christian for his ability to mimic the infant whining of the son (and this praise is undoubtedly earned), at times when I felt a listener may have been agitated or sympathetic towards the sobbing child the spectating audience were prompted to laugh at the sight of a bearded young man literally crying like a baby. Furthermore, whereas I was incredibly impressed with the oral emulation of the weather and wildlife, when the sound scape consisted of spoken voice overlapping in an attempt to produce the sound of the excitable villagers, I found it to be overwhelming and alienating as opposed to immersive. It is regrettable that on more than one occasion I was forced to question if, had I been listening on the radio rather than sat in the audience, whether I would have understood these sections to be representative of a congregation of townsfolk or whether I would have been bombarded by incomprehensible babble.

This should not insinuate that the paradigm between the audible and the visual was consistently ineffective throughout all aspects of the performance. In reality, it was this idiosyncrasy which for me elevated the performance in numerous places. Whenever Christian resumed speaking as the Very Old Man, the contortions of his face and the tenseness of his shoulders brought the winged creature haggard and spluttering into the space. It has to be said that the entire cast were incredibly expressive, orally and facially, although somehow still enabling their voices to hold precedence and never allowing the space to fall into silence.  Moreover, there was something unnervingly visceral about Henderson Child’s simulation of the Very Old Man’s heartbeat through the sharp pulling of her shirt, beautifully extending the image of the beating chest. In a similar vein, it was especially powerful towards the end of the performance when, as the Very Old Man began to flap his wings with increasing energy, Abel-Unokan transitioned from sitting to standing position as he passionately (and I do mean passionately) opened and closed an umbrella to fully realise the progression of a weak fluttering into a mighty pounding of enormous wings.

I am left disappointingly torn by this adaptation from The Wax House, because ultimately my principle fault with the production is a product of the inventiveness which, for the most part, I want to congratulate. The ‘Relaxed’ and inclusive approach to producing this performance is admirable and the notion of deconstructing the radio drama is inspired, however as far as experimentations with form go I cannot be certain this was a complete success. Although the glittering accolade of this performance is posited as its attempt to remove the pretence of radio plays, I feel that in certain areas the ignorance of the audience to the method of the actors may have benefitted the production. Nevertheless, The Wax House has succeeded in presenting a whimsical, imaginative and delightfully modest piece of drama, and I would be doing all those individuals involved a disservice for not recommending it, if only so that more people might enjoy this unique dramatic experience.