The Paper Cinema's Odyssey - review
The Paper Cinema
Lower NZI Room, Aotea Centre
October 30, 2014
It’s one of the great delights of an arts festival that you discover intricately conceived and performed little gems – shows that rarely come our way in any other context. The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey is a show like that, yet here it is, not in the festival but instead warming us up. With the 2015 programme for the Auckland Arts Festival just announced, Odyssey is a timely reminder that lots more good stuff is coming our way.
Not that you should wait. This is a charmer. The Paper Cinema use cutout drawings as puppets, manipulated by two puppeteers and projected on a screen, accompanied by three musicians. Piano, guitars, violin, drums, sure, but also melodica, theremin, thunder foil, jew’s harp, and even a wind chime hanging over the audience and connected to the players by a long piece of string. And then there are all the entertaining foley effects: feet walking on gravel, scrunched up paper, even bubble wrap being popped.
It’s funky and wistful and it never stops being entertaining, in the story and in its presentation. That’s quite a feat, because the Odyssey is not an obvious choice for theatre, even a theatre of projection where it’s relatively easy to create fantastical monsters and storms and violent extremes. It’s quite hard to drive a spike into a monster’s eye with actors on a stage, but it can be wonderfully evocative when drawn and projected onto a screen. That’s a definite highlight of the show.
And yet this Odyssey cannot entirely escape from a couple of traps of its own making. One is the charm, which infects pretty much everything in it. Being delightful is one thing, but it prevents the search for a deeper level on which the show might become either frightening or thematically more complex. This touring British troupe have treated the Homer as a simple tale of absence and longing, sentimentally resolved at the end for its happy lovers, and don’t seem to have considered it might contain anything deeper or have a more troubling resonance.
Another is the episodic structure of the story: Homer’s Odyssey is much like a TV crime series with a different court case every week. Fair enough on TV, or if it’s declaimed in the Homerian tradition, with a new adventure every night around the fire. But that structure is inherently undramatic if you try to string a whole lot of episodes together in a play.
The solution here is to have Odysseus, visiting Hades, being told of many of the dangers to come. Most are quickly evoked, and we get only a small number played out. This makes the show nice and tight, but at the expense of some old favourites. If you know the story well and you’re looking forward, say, to the Sirens singing to lure the sailors onto the rocks, you’ll be disappointed.
Conversely, if you don’t know the story, you may find yourself a little lost. Bad things happen, but with no dialogue and only occasional words on screen, it’s not always clear what.
There’s another problem, entirely not of the Paper Cinema’s making: it’s in the wrong venue. Everyone needs a clear sightline of the screen and the performers, but in the Lower NZI Room several audience rows were flat on the floor, condemning those seated there to obscured sightlines. This is inexcusable, especially as Auckland Live, which runs the venue, also runs the much more appropriate Herald Theatre.
Still, if you can score a good seat, and if you like losing yourself in a great story conjured by deeply creative, highly skilled people out of very few resources, you shouldn’t miss this. It’s very clever.
To November 1.