Review: The Fahrenheit Twins, Barbican
Published on Culture Wars, 26.11.2009
Stationed on a remote arctic island, celebrated anthropologists Boris and Una Fahrenheit are knee-deep in research when two little bundles of fur arrive unexpectedly. They are, of course, the titular twins, Tainto’lilith and Marko’cain. While their parents head off to daily observe the local indigenous tribe, the Gui Inuit, the twins are left to handle their own entertainment and, it follows, education. With their questions bouncing unanswered off the ice, the worldview that emerges is skeletal, born of assumptions, around which there spring a series of primitive rituals.
“How are we going to stop time?” they ask like two miniature Canutes attempting to stem the tide. Only, of course, time cannot be stilled and, as their biblical monikers suggest, their loss of innocence is only a matter thereof, here catalysed by their mother’s death and a corpse-laden pilgrimage across the icy planes.
Michael Faber’s narrative is the stuff of fairy tales: epic, dark and knowing. It encompasses both the ever-sunny family and the neglected childhood whittled away before culminating in a rite of passage and betrayal. For all that Told by an Idiot’s founding members, Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael – here switching swiftly between parents and children, huskies, tribesmen and arctic foxes – mine the twins’ tribulations for Faber’s intelligence, their treatment is covered in a mawkish layer of fluff.
Quite literally, in fact. Their arctic setting is a woolly wonderland, forged of a faux-fur covered disc with a centrepiece of a stiletto-shaped slide, on which Hunter and Carmichael goof around for all their worth. Only there’s an unwillingness to infuse this tomfoolery – whereby dogs browse National Geographic whilst defecating and romancing foxes chink champagne flutes – with anything more profound. Instead, the two layers are immiscible: one guffawing at itself, the other determinedly po-faced.
Whether serious or silly, though, Told by an Idiot’s adaptation is always on thin ice, as it teeters on the edge of patronising. The language tossed between the twins retains the oversimplicity of children’s theatre. At times, it purifies, as, for example, when they say of their dead mother, “her skin is the colour of peeled apple.” Elsewhere, it becomes a cloying, babyish gargle, as in, “this book was once a tree.” It is a struggle inherited from the original text, the mythic tone of which, when embodied, disintegrates from bestowed wisdom to mollycoddling.
That said, there is much to admire. The economic staging concocts a great sense of location, conjuring baths, bedrooms and a craggy, never-ending landscape from very little. Hunter and Carmichael’s handling of the extinction of innocence is canny, as they sit on the stage’s edge glum, balding and paunchy: middle-aged before their time.
Overall, The Fahrenheit Twins could use more punch. Were it classified solely as children’s theatre, it would be near faultless, but the decision to aim at an adult market – there were only two or three kids in when I caught it – brings with it different standards and the hurdle of not patronising. It’s one that Told by an Idiot only half clear with this cute staging of a superb tale.
Photograph: Told By An Idiot