The floor is a dusty maze of chalk outlines, blurred and added to by hunched performers under the mute gaze of crude, dull-eyed puppets and masks – like a school art room taken over by two star pupils. The outlines never come together into one clear form; instead, they’re added to by a mess of ideas as precocious as the performance’s narrator, the eight year old Oskar. Teatr Hotel Malabar’s production plays its way through a mystery of memory, grief and the World Trade Centre attacks in self-consciously imaginative style.
Its creators claim to be inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels and Shakespeare. The most obvious influence is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to the extent that the production should perhaps identify itself as an adaptation; plot, subplot and Shakespearian elements all share a common source. Both are narrated by the child Oskar, whose father died on 9/11; haunted by his final phonecall, and by the simultaneous lack and excess of information about his death, he finds a key in a vase labelled “Black”, then searches all round New York to find out what it unlocks. Interspersed with the narrative, we see the equally fragmentary story of his grandparents’ relationship, played out through letters, and the story of Yorick from Hamlet; contexts that complicate, as much as illuminate.
Performer Marcin Bartnikowski has aptly described the play as “more like a puzzle to put together” than storytelling – composed by deliberate fragmenting of the narrative through different mediums, like Safran Foer’s playful interjections of images into his novel. The dialogue shifts from mouth to mouth, text to Skype, TV screen to oddly expressionless puppets, reeled in on fishing lines. Both performers fiddle round with an onstage laptop and projector, filling the back wall with images like a bizarre lecture, hundreds of thousands of numbers calculating the endless enormity of life in New York. Moments are beautiful; particularly the use of Google Street View to show Oskar’s contacts with Black after Black across the city, zooming in on blurry windows occupied by an unseen, unhelpful cast of bizarre characters. But although the technique is great at creating a sense of big city alienation, its less successful at creating a sense of Oskar as a character, let alone a small child; his personality is overshadowed and lost when split between two adult performers, themselves juggling and manipulating a computer mouse, puppets, props and cameras.
Teatr Hotel Malabar have taken a novel that’s already breaking out of its form, laden with plot and images, and then piled on more; tricks, puppets, whimsy, technology. The boy at its centre is too slender to bear the weight, and without a child’s eyes to see the naive narrative through, the experience feels more trudging than charming.