Stories on a String

Rachel Warr and Rachel Hayter
Dotted Line Theatre and Polyglot Arts
Little Angel Theatre
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This is the story of a Brazilian little girl called Jacina. She lives in the big city of Sao Paulo where she is a very modern young lady who is always on her phone and following Facebook, but, when her grandmother sends her off into the Amazonian rainforest to bring back a traditional medicine she needs, she finds life very different away from the concrete and her high-rise home.

It is frightening in the forest, especially when her phone finds no signal, but she goes on searching for the tree that will provide granny’s medicine, a tree that has twisted bark, spiny leaves and lots of bright blue berries. On the way, she encounters the freshwater dolphin O Boto and the spirits of the forest: prankster one-legged Saci Pereré, the forest’s strange guardian Curupira and Matinta Pereira, a woman in the daytime who turns into a bird when it’s night.

The show takes its style and its title from the Brazilian Literatura de Cordel, a way of publishing popular poetry that is recited to music poetry in illustrated booklets that hang on a string. The set starts off as a typical stall from a Brazilian street hung with such booklets that transform to become the story’s various locations. Jacina is a doll-like puppet, her size changing to match the scale of the location and characters and action brought to live both with three-dimensional puppets and two-dimensional drawings that reflect the style of the Cordel.

A concertina of paper opens up to become a high-rise home or the twisted-bark tree, a drawing on card speeds across as a taxi, an ambulance, a plane crossing the sky or the lorry of illegal loggers doing damage to the rainforest, or the paper unfolds to be a whole traffic jam. Jacina’s parents are drawn with fingers pointing down at her, the dolphin that repeatedly leaps out of the water is on card, people Jacina encounters also drawings.

This simplest of styles, giving life by lifting each image, as it were, from the book page, is combined with more conventional puppetry and finds easy acceptance from its young audience, though some images seem more effective than others and, from the back of the theatre, are sometimes too small to distinguish detail.

From the start, Stories on a String encourages audience participation; they help make the sounds that are part of the action and later, as Jacina discovers how life is lived in the traditional village granny came from, join in the song from the rainforest that the villagers teach her.

Song is an essential part of this piece and music composed by Rachel Hayter that is inspired by traditional music. It is played and sung by Camilo Menjur (on guitar) and the composer who also narrates much of the story with puppeteers Ajjaz Awad and Jum Faruq adding their voices. Sometimes, those voices need a little more clarity and projection to reach to the back of the theatre and the beautifully managed transitions between scenes take a fraction too long—but they still held the young audience’s attention.

This simple, child-centred story, taking its audience from the busy city into the Amazonian jungle, isn’t preachy but it is a reminder that there is a real world beyond tablet, phone and Facebook if you open your eyes and explore it. It shows respect for the older cultures we come from, for the natural ecology. Jacina doesn’t succeed in her quest for the medicine that granny needs—illegal loggers have chopped that special tree down, it doesn’t exist now—but she comes back to the city with new knowledge, fresh experience and the audience shares that.

Tour dates for Stories on a String will include: 28 July Brentwood Theatre; 13 October Central Studio, Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke; 20 October The Albany, Deptford; 25 October Louth Riverhead Theatre; 27 October 27th 2018 Norwich Puppet Theatre; 31 October Merlin Theatre, Frome; 10 November Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton; 17 November Hawth Theatre, Crawley—and more to be announced.

Howard Loxton