City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Ragnarök, manipulate Festival 2018, Traverse Theatre, Review

By Erin Roche - Posted on 28 January 2018

Tortoise in a Nutshell, Ragnarök
Show Details
Traverse Theatre
Tortoise in a Nutshell
Arran Bird (company co-director/performer), Ross MacKay (company co-director/performer), Alex Bird (company co-director/performer), Jim Harbourne (composer, sound designer, performer)
Running time: 

Ragnarök (Snapshots 1)

“The world is breaking.”

In a work in progress from multi award-winning company Tortoise in a Nutshell, the Norse tale of Ragnarök, the end of days, descends upon a modern world made of cardboard and upon men made of clay, the dichotomies of endings and beginnings, of death and rebirth told in the projection of myth upon a grim reality.

Opening with a white paper sphere upon which projections of symbols depicting an apocalyptic story are imposed, the image of a paper moon comes to mind. A paper moon is the perfect opening to a visual, physical theatre piece. 1933 jazz standard, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” opens with the stanza that talks of a made-up world that becomes real if only you believe,

"It’s only a paper moon sailing over the cardboard sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.”

And, as the images of Fenrir, the giant world-engulfing wolf, and the visage of skyscrapers sent into decay disappear along with a blackout and a breaking of the paper, the audience focus is reset onto, not a sea, but a city of cardboard in the center of the stage. With this, the metaphor of the jazz standard, intentional or otherwise, sets in deeper, the meaning of make-believe brought to life by an audience of believers made visceral as a performer sets up a small camera, projecting a live-action film of the city's alleys and broken windows, of its desolation, violence, and poverty. Miniature details made of mere lightweight cardboard make a weighty impression.

That feeling of darkness and pain mixed with play and imagination is a thread throughout the rendering of this Ragnarök , where the city is upturned in a moment of force, where a tiny clay man is projected by a live camera to the upstage wall, seen in consecutive renderings of varying levels of disintegration down to mere footprints.

A recent anthology of Norse Mythology was published in 2017 by noted author Neil Gaiman, who is famous for encouraging darker themes in literature made for a young audience. As Gaiman himself has stated, “The point of telling scary stories is inoculation. You get to take and deal with a little bit of the things that scare, and hurt, and damage us.” Paraphrasing a quote by G. K. Chesterton, Gaiman argues, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

In the present, modern day, we are called to respond to our “dragons,” global crises that take form in nuclear threats, inventions of biological warfare, and increasing natural disasters. We humans of all ages are forced to ask ourselves how we might respond to our own personal Ragnarök. Pieces like Tortoise’s Ragnarök are the fables, the acts of empathetic imagining, that we need.

The seamless choreography of light, shadow, tiny set manipulation, and the cacophony of composer, sound designer, and performer Jim Harbourne's live music additions from live digital music creation, to narration, voice manipulation, and even flute takes this piece from mere vignettes or snapshots to a fully formed universe in the imagination of the audience, which is exactly the mission of Tortoise in a Nutshell: “to ignite the imagination of the audience.”

This performance is seriously ambitious, and this version is not without its opportunities to forge ahead in different and more beneficial ways. Moments of metaphor at times are lost, and the city walkthrough, while extremely original in content, lacks some story substance. What is a cardboard deer doing at the end of the alley? Is it a symbol of hope for the humanity’s natural rebirth? What is the black-dotted cardboard orb shape hovering over the city signifying? As part of this production of Ragnarök , the performance ends with an insightful Q&A discussion, but also, more importantly, with a performer sitting cross-legged on the stage, recounting the story of Ragnarök alongside live action projections of paintings that accompany the words. It wasn’t a monologue or a seemingly rehearsed performance, but a story. We were listening to a storytelling, the simple act that is the catalyst of all creative endeavors, no matter what the medium.

In the case of Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Ragnarök , the medium is hard to nail down-- it’s live film, sculpture, lighting and shadow, paintings, narration, miniature puppetry, physical theatre… multimedia doesn’t begin to effectively describe this piece. In this telling of earthly destruction via an otherworldly fable, this Ragnarök is so much more than paper and clay.

Tortoise in a Nutshell's Ragnarök is the first in a series called Snapshots within the manipulate Festival that act as a platform for Scottish-based physical theatre organisations and artists to experiment and to showcase new works.

27 January at 1pm