Brighton Year-Round 2022
Writer Naomi Foyle, with Raven Kaliana, Producer Naomi Foyle, Directed and Designed by Raven Kaliana, Set & Puppet Builder Raven Kaliana, Construction Assistant Sarah Guedes, Composer/Arranger Ma’min Swaitat, Musicians Play for Progress, Majazz Project and Reem Kelani.
Field Recordings Zaatari Radio, Reyam Elyman, Oraib Dardasawit, Thikra Mhmd, Siba Massuod, Maria Kharzam, Robin Hunter, Ahmed Hajeer, Omar Amjad, Rami Rohmi, Big Zaid.
Dramaturg Hassan Mahamdallie, Cultural Consultant Carole Bremson, International Theatre Consultant Peter Hinton-Davis QC, Access Consultants Prof Hannah Thompson and Trai Lee. Audio Description Ess Grange Jonathan Nash and Naomi Foyle. Audio Description Provider VocalEyes, Audio Description Technicians Nigel Burke and Leigh Davies.
Access Support Sumayya Si-Tayeb (BSLI); Razia Aziz, jenni lewin turner and Hassan Mahamdallie(Communication).
Community Outreach Officers Umit Ozürk and Rachel Searle Outreach Volunteers Chiara, Arnold, Guls and Mehmet.
Catering Umit Oztürk
Social Media Alex House,Logistical Support urbanflo and Isobel Hawson,
Sound Engineering Ma’min Swaitat, Ziad Assaf, Paolo Grilli Ciciliani, Theatre Technicians Natalie Rowland, Robert Hewitt, Alfie Kennedy, Graylingwell Chapel
Film Production Jade Hylton and Dongjie Wei, Programme design Heather Robbins, Large Print/Braille Programme Design VocalEyes, Programme Photos Diensen Pamben, Cover and Creative Team Reflection Photos Raven Kaliana, Cartography Illustrations Morag Head.
Astra Macadie Amoroso
Peat Reece Raymond
Lilt/Audio Describer Sherelle Amah-Francis
Hokma Susanna Paisio
Gabriella Davalos ISNET Newsreader/IMBOD Monitor/Vultura
Samrod Jamie Chrispin
Suen/Bartoli/Zizi Matti Laska
Jasper Daniel Santos Marques
Uttu/Istar/Judge Sherine Chalhie
Habat Selwa JGFHalef
Muzi Mohsen Ghaffari
Enki Mataz Malhees
Tiamet Sarah Agha
The Zardusht Cornelia Colman
Next performance July 3rd Graylingwell Chapel Chichester. Online film available at website.
‘You’re an Out-lander!’ So shouts one seven-year-old girl at another she’s determined to take prisoner. First lesson. Her prisoner is non-binary.
It’s Year 68 of a new era, after a nuclear and ecological catastrophe has been averted. Can it happen again?
This isn’t the dystopia of some catastrophe junkie. It’s an eminently sane, even hopeful future we’re looking at. The earth’s recovered, but fragile. So are the communities. And if you’re privileged to live inside one of these earthpods, a whole peninsula no less, you won’t forget to be grateful, will you? Especially if you’re seven.
Astra might be ‘a Work in Progress Funded by Arts Council England’ but it’s adapted by poet and novelist Naomi Foyle from her acclaimed novel tetralogy The Gaia Chronicles published by Jo Fletcher 2014-18. It’s mounted here at the Brighthelm Centre, and currently due at one more venue.
And this realised with puppet designer and set builder Raven Kaliana who also directs the show as well as being one of the three puppeteers. The team behind this extraordinary condensation – 75 minutes for about 1300 pages – is vast. There’s a BSL signer too, Sumayya Si-Tayeb who never lets up, even for the Q&A. It’s an adult and young-adult telling though; and designed for them.
Kaliana’s sets too are striking: one for shadow-play and secondary characters in black and white. One where puppets emerge and drop back, including a space where in some stirring scenes they inhabit interiors. Finally a news projection, again a b/w silhouette, where state news outlets frame dates and an official version of events.
Foyle trained as an actor and dramatist, and after her last play The Stranger’s Child, one of the Sixty-Six Books mounted at the Bush, 2011, several urged Foyle to return to stage-writing. She has, and the results are singular, inspiring, unforgettable.
It’s not misnamed. There is something stellar in this story. Though this was a single-venue event, it’s one of three and I do urge anyone who’d like to see Astra live in Chichester on July 3rd to head that way (details below). Or access it online.
In addition there’s a roster of voices too, so those three puppeteers are able to change puppets. Kaliana chiefly plays Lilt, the girl caught in the forest, Sara Guedes eponymous Astra and others; Gun Suen Peat and others.
Here’s an opening taster of the plot.
Astra’s foster-mother Hokma upbraids Astra for capturing Lilt whom she brings in to her home, and it’s clear they’re not really an Out-Lander. Were in a closed community, where despite the warnings of the UN-style CONC, who seem liberal but ineffectual, we’ve entered a bi-diverse all ticked boxes country less than welcoming to outsiders.
And we hear of expropriation, and a world beyond where mines with uranium poisoning begin to poison, or irradiate Astra’s worldview. For Hokma’s not all she seems.
First off she prevents Astra by persuasion not to undertake the potion Hokma’s own brother Samrod has created, basically it makes you stronger, more obedient, and limits your intelligence. Astra wants to be a scientist. Dilemma.
Things grow from here, and it’s four books’ worth. Suffice to say in ten years Lilt, then Astra, decide to make their way to the outside world and Hokma to sacrifice herself to ensure Astra stays safe. She saved Samrod’s lover Clay, losing an eye (Hokma’s a strikingly beautiful puppet too). Samrod owes her. Does she know Astra might transform things, just a bit?
One the way the puppets, beautiful creations with a rainbow of hues and dresses (Astra’s green and Lilt enjoys a bright green shift tunic).
Lilt’s non-binary and it’s soon clear the young people are in love. But finding a new family, Astra realises that in being banished (shed’s discovered both Lilt and she are indeed at least half Out-landers, hence Astra can go into exile) – her former country’s tracking er with drones and everything she’s got.
She brings inadvertent calamity, but meets her father Zizi. And she makes a decision to end the suffering when her new family are taken prisoner. Then it’s a long long haul to freedom.
The actors are listed below. But a shout-out for several, including the hardworking main voices is truly deserved. Astra’s Macadie Amoroso, Peat’s Reece Raymond, Lilt and the Audio Describer’s Sherelle Amah-Francis, Hokma’s Susanna Paisio.
Particular praise goes to the voice of Clay/CONC Newsreader/Suen/Bartoli/Zizi – Matti Laska. Vocally he manages not only differentiation but clarity and character.
Jasper’s voiced in a Scottish accent, underscoring diversity by Daniel Santos Marques. Samrod’s urbane almost donnish hauteur’s brought out by Jamie Chrispin. Muzi’s Mohsen Ghaffari plays the role of simple, eloquent shepherd and courtroom accuser. Sherine Chalhie takes the feminine wise authority roles of Uttu, the goddess Istar and Judge
There’s strong support too from Selwa Jghalef’s Habat, freedom fighter and capturer Enki by Mataz Malhees, Sarah Agha’s gentle Tiamet. And finally something like royalty from the deep authority of Cornelia Colman’s The Zardusht.
Storytelling is brisk and mostly clear. Lighting on the day wasn’t ideal, and one key scene of a killing and a fight after was obscured. There might be a way of allowing the briefest of blackouts between the main four sections, and surtitles to denote the passage of time as well as the news readings.
There’s other conceivable ways of telling this story which could serve as adjuncts. Cartoon-strips might be a way in for YA. But of course having once seen it live, what other way could there be? Live actors? Is there a market for epic sci-fi in theatre? Which might address the necessary time constraints here? Conceivably.
This is a vast undertaking, and the limit of 70-75 minutes seems too abrupt perhaps. Equally though it’s unclear how long one can watch puppets for, so those limits are there for a good reason. The shadow-play works most clearly. It literally cuts through.
There’s a stunning puppetry scene where Astra, recaptured voluntarily, is being incarcerated in hospital. It looks almost realistic, and the puppet raising her head with a wire from the back, a tubing intended to tranquilise her, is haunting. Another prison scene elicits the same effect. Some of the most enclosed scenes are the most enchanted, simply because they’re framed. They’re a little world made cunningly,
Occasionally with both that and the puppetry working together, we get a split focus. Much will be ironed out by the next performance. It’s epic and frankly spellbinding. It’s a production that’s just owon one Award, The ONCA Green Curtain Award 2022. That should serve as a prelude.
There were several endearing moments. Food by wonderful caterer Umit Oztürk was offered before and after. The musical realisation too is extraordinarily soured with field recordings and Composer/Arranger Ma’min Swaitat who corralled all of it, with Musicians Play for Progress, the Majazz Project and Reem Kelani.
Foyle’s work with Kaliana and a huge team have literally created a ground-breaking work: in scope, in multi-media and intersectional ambition and indeed intersected aesthetic. There’s nothing remotely like it and Foyle’s team have broken through to the stars.