Sunday, 17 May 2009

MAYFEST: Polaris

A review of my Antarctic pilgrimage with Czech physical theatre company Adriatic, via Suit Yourself Magazine.

White-coat-clad scientists and relationship gurus alike have been telling us for years that up to 80% of human communication is nonverbal, but somehow it still seems astonishing when physical theatre – a form of drama that uses the body as a storytelling vehicle rather than the voice – can be just as, if not more, expressive, exploratory and touching than its talkative counterpart. Polaris, the creation of Czech company Adriatic, is one such breathtaking piece. A wordless pilgrimage to the harsh and eerie landscape of the Antarctic, Polaris transforms the black canvas of the sparse Old Vic Studio into an unforgiving wilderness, conjuring the Antarctic’s threatening and fragile geography through a number of charmingly performed tableaux.

Once surrounded by a hostile and otherworldly environment with nothing more than brotherly companionship and a whispering gramophone, the two explorers wearily struggle to survive the desolate climes and their frostbitten hunger. We witness their world seen and unseen, from their often thwarted attempts to find food to the moans of the women in their cold-inspired hallucinations.

But it is not just man’s interaction with the South Pole that Polaris captured; actors Vojta Svejda and Jan Benes-McGadie metamorphosised before our eyes into boisterously dancing walruses with their guttural calls and heavy blubber. Penguins waddled almost matronly about the stage, cheeping at each other in a shrill duet and at one point feeding a vulnerable fluffy-headed chick by mouth. Gulls swooped and dived through the sable black and the ice, imbued with Rime Of The Ancient Mariner style menace, rolled and roared as if alive. Comic and touching, each creature was rendered with such astute observation that one almost expected the dulcet articulations of David Attenborough to drift into the studio.

Although the piece was without words, it was anything but silent. The growling ice and the fauna’s cheeps, howls and wails were accompanied by a poignant score, complete with rich orchestra stirrings and occasional gypsy flourishes. The lighting and set was minimal but carefully chosen; glowing orbs and red hues brought out the delicate loneliness of the environment and ragged skin suits spoke of an empiricist past hinged on nationalistic pride and perilous scientific endeavour.

Without the safety net of language to express a thought or emotion, there is a dangerous tendency in physical theatre to stray into over-acting. Polaris however, felt entirely natural, honest and unpretentious. After waiting for rescue that never comes, the final moments of the play provided a tender communion between the human and animal kingdoms. The explorer’s frozen body sinks majestically to the bottom of the ocean accompanied by a tentative Lou Reed melody and is gently investigated by a lone fish. It’s a moving end to an awe-inspiring journey, made even more perfect as snow magically issued from the Studio’s heavens.

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