**** 4 stars
As Part of Imaginate Edinburgh International Children’s Festival
This show was so good, it kept a theatre-full of primary school children silent for virtually the whole fifty minutes – no mean feat for something which opened simply with movement and music [one child behind me whispered to another “it’s ballet”]. There were words, after a while – which led me to marvel that dancers are now expected to speak and remember lines in addition to dancing complex and demanding choreography: not just once, but throughout the show.
The sound of the sea. A deserted island. An immense froth of foam – but it’s not foam, it’s plastic in its many manifestations. Bubble wrap, plastic film, flimsy carrier bags, empty milk bottles: this filthy tide sweeps in and out, never decaying, never diminishing…
Someone [Molly Danter] comes and looks at the froth: when it sweeps towards her she is frightened and runs backwards. To her relief, the tide retreats and she dances for the sheer joy of being alive. The two other performers [Ilona Gumowska and Charlotte McLean] tell us that she is trapped on this island. She can’t swim away. She wishes she could fly, but humans can’t fly, can they…?
Ilona and Charlotte tell us about Icarus and his father Daedalus, who wanted to escape from the island where they were held against their will. They made wings with feathers stuck to branches with wax – but Icarus flew too close to the sun, causing the wax to melt and him to fall into the sea and drown.
At the back of the set are three pyramidal structures that look like giant cheese graters – maybe they are cliffs. All three performers use them as launching pads from which to try to fly, with or without the help of constructions made from the plastic debris – but they always end in disaster. They try making goggles from the plastic and using plastic bottles as floats to help them swim away – without success.
The three performers start to question the legend of Icarus. It doesn’t get hotter the nearer you get to the sun – it gets colder. So the wax wouldn’t melt, would it? Maybe Icarus escaped? Maybe that fact was covered up, so that no-one else got the idea that you could disobey with impunity…???
They talk about horrific pictures of birds being cut open to show that they have swallowed batteries, Lego pieces, and who knows what else, and of the turtle with plastic straws stuck in its nostrils. We hear about the Minotaur, half man, half bull, who lived at the centre of a labyrinth under the island. Anyone who displeased the king was sent down to the maze: only one man, Daedalus, escaped by taking a reel of thread with him, and following it back to the entrance.
Maybe you know that feeling of being trapped, unable to escape your worst nightmare? Ilona and Charlotte start making a web of threads which cross the stage, in which Molly becomes trapped. It’s a complex cat’s cradle from which it seems she won’t escape, and in which the other two become entangled – but they move together to make huge, gentle wings which slowly beat until Molly is able to break the strings imprisoning her, and the other two are able to shed theirs.
The tide comes in again, stronger and higher, and the only place to escape it is up the ‘cliffs’. Molly makes giant wings from a huge length of bubble wrap and once more tries to fly – but again falls, and this time sinks into the water, down and down and down…. It seems as though she, like Icarus, must drown – but the other two climb down into the water and make heroic efforts to bring her to the surface. Time and again it seems they must fail – but eventually she emerges, coughing and spluttering, ultimately laughing almost hysterically with the sheer joy of being alive.
But she is still marooned on the island, and the plastic is still there and won’t go away. Molly starts kicking and throwing it about until her rage threatens to overwhelm her and she collapses in despair. Ilona and Charlotte try to console her, but at first she refuses to acknowledge them. Bit by bit she is persuaded to join in their movements and discovers the strength and flexibility of three pairs of arms and six hands, their fingers flexing, and opening and closing the way birds’ primary feathers do when they fly. The three of them rediscover the joy of being alive together.
Barrowland Ballet has produced an excellent piece in Too Close to the Sun. It doesn’t shy away from the overwhelming nature of the problems surrounding us today, nor the exhaustion and sense of hopelessness that can result from battling against them. It does offer a sense of hope – together it’s possible to face tasks that can seem impossible when we are alone. There’s a lot of humour throughout the piece, which the young audience greatly appreciated.
The set seems ridiculously simple – but the cheese graters are amazingly versatile. They can be spun round, climbed up, jumped from, and all at the same time… The lighting is good, and there’s some excellent use of projection – Icarus is seen among the fishes as he sinks into the sea, both on plastic bags that members of the cast hold out and on to the cliffs. The sound track is excellent both in creating the calm isolation of the sea-girt island and in heightening the tension in dramatic moments.
The most brilliant piece of invention is the wide ribbon of plastic debris that snakes across the front of the stage – such a simple idea, so perfectly realised. It is the tide as it advances and retreats, and provides the materials with which all the attempts at flight are made.
The choreography is simply astounding – inventive, expressive, energetic, exhilarating and brilliantly performed. In the Q&A session after the show, Molly and Natasha Gilmore (one of Barrowland Ballet’s Artistic Directors and choreographers) explained how the moves were developed from the dancers’ improvisations in response to suggested situations – You discover the moves within you, and get feedback on whether it works. It certainly works!
Too Close to the Sun is a brilliant piece. I’ve not seen any of Barrowland Ballet’s previous productions but I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future.
(Note: another production will Run at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh during this August’s Fringe)
Too Close to the Sun, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, runs until Sunday 3rd June for further information go to: Too Close To The Sun — Imaginate