I’ve seen 1927’s name in glossy brochures. I’ve heard them mentioned in discussions in the office where I work. I know they have a massive international following. I know that they are a Fringe Company Done Good. But somehow I’ve never seen their work before, which means that I’m in the enviable position, upon entering the theatre, of seeing a 1927 show for the first time. My friends tell me before I go that all of their shows use animation, live music and storytelling. I’m excited to see this played out in front of me for the first time, but I wonder, even before walking in, how the company continue to make new, exciting shows when their mission statement binds them to the same modes of making.
But right now, this is all new. And I have a great time.
The premise of Roots is spelled out with a subtitle: “A collection of folk jokes, anecdotes by anonymous authors, and stories of a simpler time.”
The piece is a chocolate box of bite-size self-contained folk tales, told with an assortment of eclectic, sometimes unrecognisable musical instruments and an ensemble cast who appear across stories, and in and out of animations.
Some of the folk tales I know, some I don’t. They’re all charming, dark and macabre, some utterly nonsensical, some less so. Across the board, they’re at their best when they’re concise. One of the strongest and funniest pieces is the tale of a lady who is so unremarkable that when she’s granted three wishes, she asks for a pie and a pint of ale, before asking to change all her physical features to that of the president of the United States of America.
The animation is at its best in ‘Snake’ – I couldn’t tell you what the story was, but I know that two snakes had sex and the animation was so COOL, with patterns turning inside out into body parts into skin on a snake on a human then breaking out into pools of colour and back again.
A few of the tales feel baggier, and I wonder if it’s just a pothole in the form, that you will inevitably feel a loss of energy if your production is piecemeal and doesn’t build to a climax. Roots is exactly what it claims to be, a collection of animated folk tales, and it does it very well. For the most part, it doesn’t need to be anything more.
I think good theatre needs to be poised, and it is that.
I think good theatre needs to be unique, and it is that.
Maybe it’s the fringe lethargy, maybe it’s the show, but I have a niggling feeling of something being missing. I’ve had a nice time, but now what?
The director’s note makes a comparison to Brexit that I don’t think the show warrants, but I think it speaks to something embedded within art and artists currently, a murmuring fear of not being Socially Useful. It’s a product of our economic circumstance and a scepticism towards the arts in general, I know, and I believe in art for art’s sake as much as anything, but I still feel a certain frustration when I watch a piece of theatre and think it’s something that people will watch, enjoy, and then go about their lives in the same way as they did before. I watch this very well made, entertaining, uniquely crafted show, and I can’t help but think, what’s important about it? Where’s the urgency? 1927 have built a successful career on formal innovation and experimentation, but I’m wondering if this year, this era, demands something more. The tumultuous instability of our political, ecological and cultural climate seems to ask for something more primal, more urgent from the companies and NPOs which lead our artistic ecology.
Roots is on until 25th August as part of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. More info and tickets here.