If you’re at Glastonbury and you’re far enough back, you’re probably going to spend most of the time watching the giant screens rather than the tiny smudges in the distance that supposedly constitute the band members. So why not forego the mud altogether, save yourself the 200 quid and watch the DVD at home?
By the same token, if you’re looking at a screen rather than watching the performers during a play, wouldn’t it make more sense to save the cast the hassle, record it once and just stick it in theatres?
The screen’s presence in Something Very Far Away isn’t because of the venue’s size, however – it’s an intrinsic element of the format, which is best described as live cinema, or maybe even live animation.
Sets and cameras are scattered across the stage, and the puppeteers dart between them while another member of the troupe controls the video feed via a mixing desk, cutting and cross-fading between the sets. An acoustic guitarist provides the soundtrack throughout.
This poignant tale of an astronomer and his doomed wife is conveyed with misshapen marionettes and shadow puppets, and enhanced with a range of special effects. The execution of these effects occasionally tempts us to draw our gaze away from the screen and towards the stage, as when a burning cannon’s fuse turns out to be a sparkler being held from off-camera. The production design as a whole is beautifully whimsical.
For such an elaborate format it’s fitting that the story itself is fairly minimalist, not to mention wordless. It’s also rather tragic, as the astronomer, Johannes Kepler, loses his wife in a horse-related circus accident and decides to spend the rest of his life travelling through space at light speed, gazing back at the earth from further and further away with his trusty telescope. This allows him to rewatch himself and his wife spending their life together over and over, like seeing a bright star from earth that may have burned out millenia ago.
(Interestingly, Johannes Kepler was a real astronomer, though given that he lived in the late 16th century his involvement in space travel seems like artistic license).
It’s all rather melancholy, and perhaps has a more obvious appeal for adults than for children. Not that there aren’t plenty of sad undertones to popular children’s entertainment already – Charlie Brown was always a pretty depressing guy, and the sadder moments of Charlotte’s Web and (especially) Watership Down seem to be what appeals most to kids about those stories.
Yes, you’ll be watching the screen for most of its perfectly-formed 35 minutes, but Something Very Far Away would lose much of its charm without its context. Like the puppets themselves, it’s not so much about what you see than knowing that someone’s pulling the strings, and it’s their ingenuity and deft skill in doing so that’ll have you walking out of the theatre with a smile on your face.
Performed at the Unicorn Theatre until the 24th June.