“Bereavement is a lonely process,” says Theatre ad Infinitum’s co-artistic director George Mann. It is a simple statement and perhaps an obvious one, but a painful truth nonetheless. This bruising observation is at the heart of Theatre ad Infinitum’s latest show, Translunar Paradise, a delicate journey through grieving and letting go that is embarking on an international tour following outings at the Edinburgh Fringe and the London International Mime Festival.
The Lecoq-trained Theatre ad Infinitum have forged an increasingly distinctive path for themselves in physical theatre and mime since their conception in 2007, with work that resists neat pigeon-holing. The company have experimented with an a capella score in The Big Smoke, physical solo storytelling in Odyssey and spirited clowning in Behind the Mirror. Translunar Paradise is similarly, refreshingly unwieldy, marrying mime, masks, puppetry and music in a wordless love letter to the relationship between one couple and that relationship’s poignant termination through the intervention of mortality.
“You need a constraint when you create,” is Mann’s artistic mantra. He explains to me over the phone that during the long development process for Translunar Paradise, the first seed of an idea for which was born from the W. B. Yeats poem The Tower that lends the piece its title, he found it unhelpful to think of the story in literal terms. While the basis for the show was the simple premise of an elderly man losing his wife and learning to let go, it was clear from an early stage that this was not going to be a traditional, straightforward portrayal of loss. “I was looking for something that was going to force me to think creatively and do something exciting,” Mann goes on.
This was eventually found in the form of puppetry and masks, both of which have had a heavy influence on the finished piece, but Mann’s approach to these elements has directly clashed with the principles ingrained by his own training. Holding a mask up to the face and, in a similar way, exposing the join between puppet and puppeteer both contradict the aim of illusion, flagging up the artificial. These distancing techniques sat uneasily with Mann’s creative background, but he identified something “poetic” about that distance between puppet or mask and performer, as well as a way of “time-travelling” between old age and youth. By holding up masks to their faces, Mann and his co-performer Deborah Pugh can instantly inhabit their characters’ present, elderly selves, whipping them away to jump into flashbacks.
Mann’s careful, considered description of the creative process behind Translunar Paradise, which he conceived, devised, directed and performs in, conjures an image of a theatrical scrapbook, borrowing fragments from various other art forms and pasting these together into something identifiably his. Another, surprising source of inspiration was Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and the way in which Spiegelman’s black and white sketches movingly evoke the past. “We started working in a comic book, photographic way,” Mann expands. “We picked out the actions that we wanted to use and started creating the back story of this couple and their life together scene by scene as if we were flicking through photographs.”
Was it always intended that this story would be told without words? Mann tells me that the decision to incorporate masks effectively precluded the possibility of speech in his mind, but there was also a deeper reason for this artistic choice; quite simply, “this is something that is really hard to describe”. Death remains one of the last taboos, and particularly in our culture loss and grief are not topics that are openly discussed. More than this, grieving is an experience that is in many senses divorced from verbal communication. As Mann continues, “it’s a lot about what you feel and experience and remember. I wanted to communicate an experience and I wanted emotion to be part of that experience. I felt that words couldn’t say it as strongly in this case.”