Cat's Cradle

Adapted from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut
Miracle Theatre Company
Circomedia, Portland Square, Bristol, and touring
(2008)

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Relevant though the resonances of Kurt Vonnegut’s cult novel of the 1960s may be, when thinking back to the cold war climate in which the book was written, the off-the-wall humour present throughout the story becomes positively pitch black. In a nutshell, archetypal journalist John MacGuinness is in search of some information for his book about what people were up to when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. While researching the life of ‘father of the Atomic Bomb’ Felix Hoenikker, a classic portrait of the mad scientist set alight by the excitement of knowledge and discovery regardless of its consequences, John encounters Hoenikker’s eccentric surviving children who hold the secrets of their father’s other deadly legacy, a substance that can freeze everything it touches. Later on, another assignment sends John to fictitious Caribbean island San Lorenzo, where the threads of his original research re-emerge with apocalyptic consequences.

There is plenty of food for thought on the contemporary world: the ethics of science falling into the wrong hands, the crippled and controlled third world of San Lorenzo, propped up by the US, simultaneously a paradise for visitors and a hell for its own people. More uncomfortable perhaps, is the parallel which can be drawn from Bukonon, San Lorenzo’s fugitive religious leader, said to be hiding somewhere in the mountains but in fact living in comfort off the government who use the idea of him to control their own people.

Miracle’s most impressive achievement is in condensing this vast, brimming world, full of eccentricities and colourful souls, into a small, elevated stage with only four chairs, an energetic cast and a digital projector. The production is about as vivid as it could be in conjuring up the changing landscapes that plain John (played with deadpan flair by Ben Dyson) moves through.

Director Bill Scott's brilliant use of backdrop projections provides endless opportunities for surrealist wit, all of which are seized upon with gusto. There are elements of a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry movie in the never ending ascending lift which John shares with Hoenikker’s old supervisor, or in the telephone which leaves its projected image to become a physical object. There is a strange, sci-fi appropriateness in the use of technology to create a parallel world which moves with the characters, and for the most part, is so seamlessly fused into the live action (conversations between real time and virtual actors, or a real time actor looking at their virtual self in the mirror) that it leaves a you with dizzy questions about what you really are witnessing in terms of time and space.

Other elements to the novel lend themselves brilliantly to Miracle’s adaptation. San Lorenzo’s puppet dictator, hailed by the US as ‘one of Freedom’s greatest friends’, is a genuine puppet, grotesquely festooned in military decorations. The ritual lovemaking act of boku-maru (foot touching) when seen visually creates the image of a human cat’s cradle, harking back to the innocent game played by Hoenikker as Hiroshima burned by his creation.

But while all the ingredients seem to be present, it feels as if something is lacking overall. Perhaps it comes from the difficulty in reining all the novel’s various threads together: characters pop up and disappear not to be seen again and certain episodes seem disjointed or whizzed past. And while there is a strong plot arc to carry the drama along, the play’s climactic moments, such as John’s final reunion with Mona Monzano, feel bereft of any tension.

But this doesn’t stop a production which is as enjoyable as it is ambitious from leaving a wackily shaped imprint on a thought-provoking story.

Ben Aitken reviewed this production in London in 2009

Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester