BRIGHTON FRINGE: Astra – Multimedia Theatre: The Ironworks

03 06 2022

Astra © The Reviews Hub

Writer: Naomi Foyle (with Raven Kaliana)
Director & Designer: Raven Kaliana

Reviewer: Lela Tredwell 

A multimedia work-in-progress that brings to the stage the Gaia Chronicles, written by Naomi Foyle, through puppetry, projections and stunning soundscapes.

There is no idle moment in this merging of multimedia which draws on tabletop puppetry, models, shadow puppetry, projections, music, soundscapes, vocal actor recordings and BSL, to tell the tale of Astra. The Gaia Chronicles, from which this piece is inspired, are set in a dystopian world and draw on ancient beliefs and indigenous cultures for inspiration. Ambitiously, the show attempts to tell the story of four novels in a 70 minute performance.

Besides multiple mediums, this work-in-progress also tackles many big themes: connections to the Earth, climate issues, diversity, inclusion, technology, nature, oppression, trauma, prophecy, displacement, exile, ownership, free-will and justice. The discussion afterwards demonstrates how important its themes are and how strongly they resonate. There is however a huge amount going on for such a short performance.

There are a number of outstanding elements here to celebrate. The music and soundtrack is beautifully composed and really adds a great deal to the show. Composer Mo’min Swaitat is clearly an incredible talent. Field recordings from Zaatari Radio, original compositions from Play for Progress and music from Majazz Project have also been used as part of the arrangement to create stunning soundscapes.

For accessibility, there is a British Sign Language Interpreter who performs dance as well as
communicating the emotional changes of the piece. Sumayya Si-Tayeb is mesmerising to watch and a strong integral part of the performance. Much has been considered concerning inclusion and an audio description is also available.

The shadow puppetry elements are particularly effective. They are visually appealing and impactful. The tabletop puppets are gorgeous creations, well handled by their puppeteers. However, there is a jarring between the gentle puppet work and the voice track. The voice actors performances are heightened emotionally and boom out over the speakers. This feels altogether too big when aligned with the tabletop puppets.

If you come to the show without having read the books, it feels you are missing some key components in understanding the world and particularly its characters. The pace of the piece is fast throughout, so many details are only brushed up against before we are moved on. Time is disorienting. Some events that seem like they have taken place over a few days, have actually occurred over 20 years we learn, if we stay for the Q&A.

This lightening pace has an impact on how we engage with the characters. The protagonist, Astra is introduced to us through an exchange that demonstrates a lack of empathy so it is a challenge to then be rooting for her as the play progresses. Also difficult, is recognising the bonds between the characters later when we have not seen them fully established at the start. Quite suddenly, two of the main characters are snogging each other’s puppet-faces off, with no real lead up to the emotions behind this romance. Devoting more time at the start to getting to know the characters could really help our engagement with their journeys.

The makers have been clear that this is a work-in-progress. There is indeed much potential here. A different narrative structure could really enhance this performance, along with some changes to the pace. Writer Naomi Foyle spoke, in the question and answer session, about how it seems many of us use only 10% of our hearts. This show similarly has the feel of only revealing the tip of an iceberg. It is clear there is much of importance here and much to be evoked. However, ambitiously trying to cram all these elements and an epic narrative into this 70 minute performance has created something that has gone broader rather than dug deep. A more focused approach is needed to consider this performance as a piece of art in its own right.

This show has many very good intentions and elements of it are outstanding but it deserves to invest more in its characters so that it takes all of its audience with it in its ambitions.

Reviewed on 1st June.