Edinburgh Fringe 2019
There is something of the magic show about Birth. Clever and beautiful use of staging facilitates the appearance and disappearance of characters and props, and represents the passage of time. But whilst this is a fundamental element of the piece, to focus on this would be to understate the precision and power of the performances, the poignancy of the storytelling and the underpinning swell of the accompanying music.
Conceived and directed by Guillaume Page and devised by the company, Birth explores the stories of three generations of women and their partners as they experience falling in love, parenthood and loss. Taking its cue from a handed down diary, it draws parallels and makes connections between the women’s experiences. And we come to understand the importance of both what is and what is not spoken about.
The production has a partnership with Anyone Everymum, who campaign for support for pregnancy loss, so it is no spoiler to say that the piece explores this amongst its themes.
The cast – Eygló Belafonte, Vyte Garriga, Claudia Marciano, Charles Sandford and Andres Velasquez – create a tightly knit ensemble.
Birth is mimed, but not silent, with just enough dialogue spoken or shouted to suggest tone and sense, and to give an idea of where we are in the unfolding of the family tale – childhood, adolescence, maturity, illness.
There is an early scene of busyness, the cast in constant movement, setting out the story to come like an overture; and indeed there is something balletic about the whole piece.
Then we slip into something more of the domestic humdrum – perhaps less immediately engaging, but it begins to weave a sense of repetition; of how lives actually are. Such poetically repetitive actions provide a backdrop for some of the more traumatic parts of the story. And the speed of activity offers an important contrast to the slow, dull ache of grief that follows (or in one memorable scene, runs alongside it).
The piece is accompanied throughout by music – a mix of 50:50 live (piano and violin) and pre-recorded fuller orchestration. Composed and played by Alex Judd, it creates an enveloping texture and stays just the right side of telling us how to feel.
In fact this is the great strength of Birth. It is clear in its narrative but never didactic, and there is enough scope for us to decide what is happening in the relationships.
Credit is due to the whole creative team with lighting, costume and props working beautifully alongside story.
The stagecraft is beautiful. In one continuous scene of a parental dream we see a foetus (in a clown-like suit) born, become child and grow to adulthood. A family watch football on TV together, perfectly in synch as they react to the GOOOAAAALLLLLL…! A man becomes old by taking on a cap and stick and a new physicality.
Huge pieces of sheeting flow across the stage, hiding and revealing the characters, and taking on its own role in scenes of birth and nightmare.
The movement is poised, and the mirroring of scenes and postures shows us how echoes and memories ring down the generations. Freeze-framing is also used to great effect.
Two moments – a sudden sweeping away and a frozen moment of realisation – stood out for me, but I won’t spoil the narrative by describing them in detail.
A couple of the devices are perhaps used once or twice too often, and there was one moment (once the element of surprise had gone) when the set-up of the staging seemed overlong. But as a whole the piece more than delivers.
In a subtle way, Birth highlights an important conversation about pregnancy loss and unspoken secrets. This in itself is laudable. The fact that it does so through a stunning piece of theatre is satisfying in the extreme.
Birth plays at Pleasance Beyond 12 noon until 25 August.