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Candice Edmunds, Jamie Harrison and Vox Motus – Flight

In a former design studio sitting on the edge of an industrial estate just outside Glasgow city centre, Vox Motus theatre company are creating a brand new world. Their new show Flight opens as part of Edinburgh International Festival this week, and is adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers' 2012 novel, Hinterland. Like its inspiration, Flight tells the story of two refugee brothers, aged fourteen and eight, on the run from Afghanistan in the hope of finding sanctuary in the west.

As a journalist in France, Brothers had come into contact with many lost boys of Afghanistan in makeshift refugee camps, and her report on them made the front page of the New York Times. Wanting to go further than the bounds of journalism would allow her, she wrote Hinterland as a fiction to get to the refugee crises full human heart. As one might expect from a theatre company whose previous work has embraced puppetry and magic tricks, their telling of the story takes a leap into something more akin to a three dimensional realisation of graphic novels than theatre per se.

“When we first started working on Flight, the narrative on unaccompanied minors was really different,” says Candice Edmunds, co-artistic director of Vox Motus with Jamie Harrison. “The Syrian civil war hadn't kicked in properly, and then across the process of working on it, it became the most overwhelming headline, with children washed up on beaches and everything else. After that, it was a question if how we reframed the narrative to tell that story.”

As Harrison points out, “There was a point about the story where we sat down and thought, what can we say about it that isn't in the news at the moment. What we can do as dramatists and theatre makers, is to try and bring audiences into a much more personal experience of what it is actually like.”

In terms of the show's execution, the presentation has been dreamt up by Edmunds and Harrison with what appears to be a small army of designers, makers and artists of all kinds working to create the brothers' world in miniature. This is done through a sequence of more than 200 light boxes that revolve in front of each member of an audience of twenty-five, who listen to the show's dialogue on a head-set as the action is 'played out' in front of them using an array of meticulously hand-made models.

“Once we approached Caroline, our initial instinct for some reason had always been about having some element of miniaturisation to the show,” says Harrison. “We've taken it down from one scale to a much much smaller scale, which we feel is the right way to tell the story. Our take on it is that these fragile characters are being presented in a tiny miniature world that puts the viewer in the space of almost looking at them as if they're a god-like figure.”

As Edmunds says, “It's been such a different process for us. There's no rehearsal. We've recorded the actors, and it's been more like making a film than any kind of play.”

Flight was initially conceived in various ways during it's gestation period. As Edmunds and Harrison mulled over various presentations, it turned out the answer was staring them in the face.

“To be honest we both wanted to do something different,” says Harrison. “We'd just finished making a model for another show that we'd spent five months making, and these are things that only the cast and producers get to see, but which are artworks in their own right. During the presentation we were doing of the model, somebody literally stopped and said, isn't it incredible how fragile these characters look. You could just smash them. There is a sense of naivete in those models, and because of the graphic novel aesthetic that we're going with, we've made the faces of the characters easy to read. What that allows you to do as well, is to take that naivete and subvert it quite powerfully.”

Edmunds talks of what she calls “a really pleasing juxtaposition between the delicateness and almost quaintness of this miniature world, when actually the story you're telling is about human trafficking, exploitation and the horrible, harrowing things that happened to these children. I think that's what drew us even more to this form. It subverts the content. There's something a little bit Victorian peep-show about it that's a little bit fun and a little bit quirky, but then, when you actually get into the narrative, it's a lot tougher.”

Harrison points out as well that “the point of view from which the story is being told is that of an eight year old boy, and the way he views the world is represented in the aesthetic choices we've made. As the piece progresses, his world changes quite dramatically, and so does the world around him as well.”

As well as drafting in Emanuel, who wrote the script of Dragon, Vox Motus' show for children which was seen at EIF in 2015, Edmunds and Harrison have drafted in a crack squad of designer Rebecca Hamilton, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and composer Mark Melville. As the activity in Flight's factory-like HQ testifies to, the company have also brought on board a core team of around forty people to make and paint the models.

“We just happened to know a really skilled group of people in Glasgow,” says Harrison. “I can honestly say that Rebecca and the team we've got working on the show are world class.”

Edmunds and Harrison have dubbed the outcome of such laborious craftsmanship as “narrative diorama-scope. But people will never know, and they shouldn't, how much work goes into making this world.”

Beyond its EIF run, Flight is portable enough for it to travel elsewhere with relative ease.

“It was originally going to be much bigger,” says Harrison, “but as an expression of our storytelling and exploration of form, basically it needs a plug and some front of house, and we can set it up in a school, a gallery or a church hall.”

A few days earlier, Harrison had been taking some time out in the small courtyard between Vox Motus' temporary studio and another red brick building that stands next door. As he was taking the air, a seagull swooped overhead and did what seagulls do in a way that is supposed to bring good luck. It probably wasn't the sort of bird inspired metaphor Edmunds and Harrison were looking for with Flight, but it still seemed appropriate somehow, both for the show and for Vox Motus.

“In terms of the trajectory of the company, we're just open to whatever story needs to be told in a way that we can find out how to tell it,” Harrison says. “Anything is possible.”

Flight, Church Hill Theatre Studio, Edinburgh International Festival, August 4-27, various times.

The Herald, August 1st 2017



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