Reviewed: Orpheus and Forest Fringe

Limitation so often breeds invention, except in this case, when it doesn't.

Orpheus; Forest Fringe
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11;
Gate Theatre, London W11

Jean “Django” Reinhardt, the virtuosic, Belgian- born jazz guitarist, lost the use of two fingers on his left hand when his caravan caught fire. Doctors believed he’d never play again but the 18-year-old retrained and, using only two fingers for solos, developed a unique technique that revolutionised guitar-playing. Limitation so often breeds invention.

The touring company Little Bulb Theatre has always held that principle dear. Its work is homespun, ramshackle and delicately whimsical but it has more pluck than Reinhardt’s left hand. What sort of emerging company, a year out of university, throws together “an epic folk opera” in a fortnight? Or teaches itself new musical instruments from scratch to tour a village fete around rural England? It has always fostered a gleeful, untutored amateurism that is utterly infectious.

For its retelling of the Orpheus myth, Little Bulb has taken over the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre. The problem is, without its former limitations, it ends up trying to fake its ragbag appeal. To do so, it uses the old play-within-a-play trick; the one that Shakespeare pops on to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’re in 1930s Paris, in a music hall, and Reinhardt is starring as the eponymous muso-poet alongside Yvette Pépin – a Piaf-style proprietress – as his lost love Eurydice.

Cue an overdose of overacting. Dominic Conway’s Reinhardt smoulders and postures as the romantic lead. Eugenie Pastor’s Pépin, so desperate to please her audience, plants her feet, waves her arms and faces front, a nervous smile fixed on her face. All the knowingly naive stage devices are there, as well: painted scenic backdrops, scene-stealing choruses and clumsy puppetry. It’s pretty much Peter Quince’s Pyramus and Thisbe but that comic coda here lasts the entire evening and it runs out of steam.

The whole thing feels contrived. The backdrops are carefully designed to look elegantly shoddy. Every awkward exit that gets tangled in the velvet curtain clearly sets off with the intention of entangling itself. In short, the clowning just doesn’t cut it.

Little Bulb wants to send theatre up and uphold its beauty at the same time. Occasionally, the latter breaks through, often musically. There’s a glorious aria from Tom Penn, sung in a spine-tingling falsetto, which retells the Persephone myth; a blast on the room’s vast, inbuilt organ; and a lot of awesome, tub-thumping gypsy jazz. Conway’s solos are particularly astounding. He sits front-curtain and stares at his audience like a cobra hypnotising its prey.

Orpheus is undone by his gaze: the look back that condemns Eurydice to death. However, that aside, there seems no real reason to frame the myth in this way. It’s not clear why Reinhardt is an Orphic figure and his presence does little to illuminate Orpheus. Rather, the decision justifies the musical style in much the same way as Shakespeare gets plonked in arbitrary time-space settings.

If Little Bulb fakes failure, Glen Neath and Ant Hampton have woven it deep into the fabric of Romcom, which headlines the first week of the Forest Fringe residency at the Gate. Two completely unrehearsed performers stand onstage, obeying instructions fed to them through headphones. Sometimes, their lines race ahead of them or they’re given the wrong words. At other times, the instructions aim to humiliate, demanding nosepicking, bum-scratching and long stretches of dancing in silence.

They’re acting out a distorted romance. Boy meets girl. A string of awkward dates breeds love. The relationship disintegrates. In this, form meets content. It catches the fluster of early courtship and the self-absorption that unravels relationships. “We’re incompatible,” she says to him. Yet they relax into it and into each other. After all, romance – and romcoms, in particular – follows a set script.

But Romcom also shows its age. First seen in 2003, it doesn’t go far enough with its chal lenges. It flirts with danger where later audio-instruction work has thrown performers and, subsequently, audience members in at the deep end. Then there’s the wilful obscurity of the text. Experimental theatre has got a lot better at communicating in the past decade. It has recognised the benefits of neatness.

Part of the pleasure lies in revisiting the piece with different performers. Neil Callaghan, in a too-small Brazil shirt, seems borderline autistic, while Christopher Brett Bailey, in an oversized Arsenal top, is sardonic, petulant and immature. Opposite Callaghan, Karen Christopher seems younger than her years; Ira Brand, older than hers. Casting comes to seem like a form of matchmaking. In the second half, these performers show their own work. It’s unfair to criticise works-inprogress but Callaghan’s deserves a special mention. A Certain Shaft of Light, a movement piece hymning the North Star, has a rare, hold-your-breath, world-stopping beauty.

He recalls Bernard Moitessier, the French yachtsman, who, seven months into a roundthe- world race, deliberately veered off-course and just kept going. His was not the fastest solo voyage but the longest. In front of a makeshift constellation, the Big Dipper in tea lights, pointing up to a candlelit North Star, Callaghan goes through a series of exhausting, exertive movements. He flings his arms and slaps his back. He scuffles backwards. Other performers would show how hard they’re working. Callaghan just carries on, neither failing nor succeeding, and it’s all the more moving and profound for that.

“Orpheus” runs until 11 May “Forest Fringe” runs until 4 May

Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: littlebulbtheatre.com
JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge