1927: The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
Published by the National Theatre, December 2011
From South Carolina to South Korea, via New York and New Zealand, 1927 have the sort of touring schedule one expects of Robert LePage or Complicite, not a company of emerging artists in their late-twenties and early-thirties. Next year, Nigeria and Croatia will become the latest pins jutting out of the company’s world map.
Such instant international success points not only to the uniqueness of 1927’s work, but also the accessibility of its strong visual elements and simple storytelling techniques.
Arguably the most important factor, however, is its relationship with cinema, a truly global medium when compared with the inherent localism of theatre.
Stage and screen have long been characterised as rivals. The latter has undoubtedly won the battle for cultural dominance, able to harness a global audience in a way that theatre, by its very nature, can never dream of emulating.
However, theatre’s advocates respond by championing the very cause of this supposed restriction; that is, by arguing for the primacy of the live event. That which happens in the moment, they say, trumps the past tense fixity of film.
Nonetheless, many theatre-makers still cast an envious eye in film’s direction. They want to match the scale of its wide-shots or the nuanced emotions of its close-ups. They want the stunts, monsters and explosive spectaculars that special effects make possible. But they want it here and they want it now. In other words, they want a theatre that, like film, is unrestricted by the reality of its raw materials.
It is this frisson between the two media that characterises the work of 1927, a name that harks back to the era of silent films and, in particular, the year in which Fritz Lang’s seminal piece of expressionist cinema Metropolis received its world premiere. Incidentally, the influence of Lang’s film can be seen throughout The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets, right from its first panoramic image of a sprawling city skyline.
A 1927 show might be best described as an attempt to replicate the experience of watching a film to the stage. In that, it is the exact inverse of the National Theatre’s own NT Live scheme, which seeks to reproduce the experience of live theatre via the cinema screen.
Unlike the screen-to-stage adaptations that have become frequent fixtures in the West End, 1927’s work is reflexive about the process of media-hopping. They recreate cinematic techniques, such as panning shots and silent film’s text plates, with witty approximation and their work is full of cinematic tropes: bird’s-eye views of characters falling from skyscrapers and distressed damsels tied to train tracks. The attempt often knowingly falls short, half in homage, half in jest.
Ironically, though, the company owes its existence to another medium altogether: radio.
In 2005, Suzanne Andrade’s performance poetry was played on Radio 3’s now-extinct, late-night experimental music programme Mixing It. Amongst the listeners was freelance illustrator Paul Barritt, who subsequently wrote to Andrade suggesting they collaborate somehow. Barritt had recently begun experimenting with film and animation, while Andrade’s background was in theatre, which she had studied at Bretton Hall alongside co-performer Esme Appleton.
In August 2006, after a year of presenting work on the London Cabaret Circuit, Barritt and Andrade went to the Edinburgh Fringe as part of a literary cabaret entitled Miserable Ink. Alongside a magician-cum-poet and a singer-songwriter, their contribution was a series of poems about a married couple, Rodney and Carol, living in Goring-on-Sea.
The experience wasn’t exactly positive – one performance was cancelled after no one turned up to watch – but it shaped 1927’s desire to return the following year with a popular, festival-friendly piece of their own.
That piece was Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a series of pop-gothic vignettes with an aesthetic of buttoned-up Victoriana. Such ingredients are staples of the Edinburgh Fringe, but what set the piece apart, both from other Fringe shows and 1927’s previous work, was the witty interplay between live-action and projected animation.
Cartoon arrows pierced the heads of real-life performers. A suburban housewife sawed the moon in half. Sepia-toned lithographs sprang to life, walking off the screen’s frame to appear onstage in three dimensions. With Lillian Henley’s piano accompaniment, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea felt like a silent film possessed, running amok in an empty auditorium.
While critics, audiences and award panels all fell over themselves to praise the technique, it wasn’t without precedent. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sunday in the Park with George had used projection with similar invention (though less interaction) two years earlier, and a staging of the Telegraph’s Alex cartoon strip, directed by Improbable’s Phelim McDermot and starring Robert Bathurst, was scheduled for the West End later that year.
Nonetheless, such was the Edinburgh run’s success that 1927 would find themselves performing almost non-stop around the world for the next two years. Their stop in Australia led to a second show being commissioned by the Melbourne Malthouse, in conjunction with London’s Battersea Arts Centre.
Equally pivotal was a stint in Hong Kong, where they visited the notorious Chungking Mansions, a series of five tower blocks in the centre of Kowloon that house around 4,000 people at any given time. Its run-down corridors are teeming with shop fronts, street sellers and touts, all hawking their wares at full volume. This would, eventually, provide the inspiration for the overpopulated, undernourished Bayou Mansions of The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
The result marks a huge advance for the company, rightly recognised by its presence at the National Theatre. They have slickened the interaction between live performers and projected image such that the monochrome animations of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea now look primitive by comparison. It is also far more socially resonant, particularly in the wake of the riots that took place in London last summer.
Next year, the company make their first foray into opera, creating a silent film-inspired staging of The Magic Flute for The Komische Opera in Berlin with a cast of 60. It is a measure of 1927’s unique merits that the company won’t even have passed its seventh birthday before opening night.