new music reviews authored by paul khimasia morgan

Monday, 26 June 2017

"the blue heart of the planet"

photo by George Baylis

Carnival Of Objects Theatre Of Puppetry presents
The Sea

Shelley Theatre, Boscombe, Dorset 24/25 June 2017

A “dark and atmospheric coastal tale”, The Sea is a modern re-imagining of traditional stories and
legends that surround the “Selkies”, or seal folk – “…the spiritual personifications of nature and the hidden aspects of the workings of the sea…” - that originate from The Western Isles.  Indeed, director Nicky Baylis spent considerable time researching these legends when she visited the Outer Hebrides in preparation for writing the play.  The Sea is immersive; from the very first moments, as the sea mist rolls in over the audience from the rear of the Shelley Theatre’s small raked stage to later, when the first of the beautiful hand-sculpted seal-masks bob around, I was transported to another place.  Baylis’ story pits a barbaric, drunken seal hunter against the mystical aspects of the sea itself, while a sub-plot involving a doomed relationship between a human male, (of very traditional male attitudes), and a seal woman intertwines with the unnerving influence of a kind of witchy conjuror-type character, Maggie o’ th’ Moss.  In a way, the masks and puppets are the real stars of the show; the epic two-year pre-production period being due in large part to the time it takes to fabricate these often quite large pieces.  The impressive “Seal King” mask must have been over three feet tall.
The four excellent actors/puppeteers; Emma Manley, Tony Horitz, Jonny Hoskins and Nicky Baylis, are joined onstage by two musicians; violinist Stefan Defilet and cellist Nick Squires who perform throughout.  Defilet wrote the score for the play and it is here, along with the imaginative sound design, that the tangible magic of the play is created.  Using a mixture of traditional folk-influenced elements, extended technique and otherworldly drones, Defilet and Squires ramp up the mood, tension and anxiety as the play progresses.  In the second half, the amplified pre-recorded sound design which had previously comprised simple effects such as the sound of waves or seabirds, now employs fabulously unsettling delays and reverberation on spoken passages, (reminding me of the disconcerting sound effects in the lurid Mexican 1960s Mr Majicka films), contrasting hi-fidelity and grainy analogue sections, sputtering white noise, in particular, during the scene where the Grim Reaper makes an appearance, helping give the proceedings a genuine sense of menace.

photo by Paul Viner

The puppeteering is elegant and refined throughout; referencing the bunraku technique, (in other words, the performers are visible to the audience while operating the puppets).  There is also a link back to one of the building’s previous uses – the Publicity Artist; cartoonist Mark Stafford and the photographers, Liam Daniel and George Baylis all studied art in the building.
The venue itself is in a perfect location for this play; only a few hundred yards away from the cliffs overlooking the sea at Boscombe.  The auditorium itself currently has a suitably “shabby-chic” look about it as all the remaining original features – the proscenium arch and raked stage for example – have been retained and their aged patina preserved intact.  The modern theatre bar and courtyard adjacent to the auditorium is a stylish recent addition.  The original theatre was built by Percy Florence Shelley, son of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, inside his private residence, Boscombe Manor.  The theatre itself opened in 1870.  The building’s subsequent history is interesting.  Shelley and his wife left no direct descendants, so the manor was sold and became a school around the turn of the century.  After the Second World War it then became an art college - I studied there from 1988-1990 when it was known simply as Shelley Park; part of Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design.  At that time, the stage area of the theatre, (complete with the original raked floor), was our canteen and the auditorium our Main Hall.  When the College stopped using the building to teach, the building sadly quickly fell rapidly into disrepair.  As is too often the case these days, where financial pressures seem to sometimes take precedent over historical value, at this point in time, there was some concern for the future of the derelict theatre.  However, developers refurbished the entire site after it was sold in 2005 and it is no small achievement of the team behind the Shelley Theatre Trust who have so elegantly brought Shelley Theatre back to life.

I attended the first of a two-night run and both nights appear to have been sold out.  Nicky Baylis plans to tour the play around coastal theatre venues in the near future.  It's a wonderful piece of work. I wish her and Carnival Of Objects the best of luck in that endeavour.

photo by George Baylis

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