Philippe Quesne and CAMPO
The Unicorn is a theatre usually aimed at an audience of children and young people, but this production, presented by LIFT and the Unicorn puts children on the stage with a show that presents their view of the world to grown-ups.
CAMPO is an arts centre in Ghent in Belgium. It commissioned Paris-based director Philippe Quesne to work with a group of 8- to 11-year-old children to create this work in which he turns their ideas and observations into a piece of theatre. In effect, they are playing at being grown ups, yet at the same time, perhaps unknowingly, caustically commenting on the grown-up world too.
It is impossible to identify how much the director has channelled the imagination of his 13 performers, how much of the ideas are his input. He clearly has given shape and setting to what appears to be their imaginative play but this nevertheless comes over as a child’s view of the adult world and of their own future. It is a view that is both illuminating and disturbing.
Foam blocks are piled up on one side of the stage while, in the centre, children crowd around an overhead projector selecting images thrown onto a screen, half-raised behind them, with images of people and creatures that are child-like drawings but with a detail and sophistication that suggests they are the work of a designer. Already, Quesne poses a question and makes a statement. Just how much are children’s concepts created by adult example? And what follows demonstrates how that example can be interpreted.
The youngsters disappear as the house lights fade, returning with a great puff of smoke and a tune with the insistency of Duka’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. They run around in a circle as the rear screen rises to reveal a backcloth with a photographically real image of a desolate-looking housing block and wasteland that seems to reach out onto the stage.
They rush off and reappear climbing over the foam blocks carrying musical instruments. Eventually, a small band forms on the other side of the stage and plays under the direction of a little girl, conducting precariously balanced on a feedback speaker.
Now, the children plan their day. A graphic appears above the skyline: “The Superhero Training School” and the programme they map out comes up as text projection: Symphony Orchestra and Shooting Commercial; Lunch, then Nap, and so on into an afternoon of Superhero training, simulated alien attack, defeating monsters, plane lifting, reconstruction after catastrophe and so forth. All those things are played out in what follows.
These are not child performers acting the roles of adult; they are children playing, their actions based on what they have picked up, dad said when he came home from work, what they heard on the television. Sometimes there is an amusing disparity with what we think is the real world, or a queasy recognition of what a mess we are in as a child speaks of molecular nanotechnology, an engineered pandemic, nuclear terrorism, global warming, over population and population decline.
In their superhero outfits they build a wall and then destroy it, arm themselves with smaller cubes of plastic foam and bombard the audience who, suddenly active, enthusiastically retaliate. Most now rebuild a central edifice and position themselves on it while downstage two girls are cooking while a plane is hoisted up to fly above.
A small boy, speaking in Flemish, his words translated by another voice, outlines the expectations of the graduated Superhero, who decides he no longer needs the yellow mask and cloak of his cartoonish figure. As the others demolish the city they have built, his understanding of future prospects and disasters is put in perspective by his intention to discover a new way of doing without an airplane: eating lots of asparagus and sprouts, he’ll fart and fly.
This is certainly not your usual theatre experience. Sometimes it has the quality of watching your own kids in a nativity play, amused and touched by the little one who keeps falling off the foam, registering the concentration of a particular performer, surprised at how well another child does something and sheer delighted at joining in the foam fight (which drew the only mid-show applause), but there is also a chilling other level happening here.
“Out of the mouths of babes” indeed.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton