The Paper Birds have time on the mind. How much we have left, what we do with it, how to make the most of the hours, days, months and years that we have left. In the midst of a festival where time is at a premium, this meditation on ageing asks us to look beyond the immediate, coveted minutes of the Fringe, reflecting on the creeping effect of the years ahead.
At the beginning of the show, and again at intervals throughout, the performers write the number of minutes left in large figures, drawing the audience’s attention to the passing of time within the space of performance. It recalls, though without the same delicacy, the similar emphasis on time in Ira Brand’s A Cure for Ageing, which explores many of the same ideas with a gentler touch. On the One Hand, however, investigates ageing through a very particular lens, yoking together female experience and the passing of the years. Its characters are six women, all at different stages of their lives and with different relationships to the world around them. Some are searching, some are defiant, some are confused.
The loose structure of the show is constructed from a series of vignettes, moving from one to the next with variable fluency. The snatches of narrative that we witness are recognisable and decidedly ordinary, speaking of experiences shared by many women. One young woman struggles to adjust to university and decide on her path through the world; another agonises over the decision to commit to marriage and family; a fading old woman captivatingly tells the wild stories of her youth. There is often an emphasis on the banal which has a sort of levelling effect, validating all experiences as worthwhile and worthy of attention, but this can also result in scenes that are merely a little dull.
As much as ageing, and often intimately connected to it, identity emerges as a key preoccupation. The question “who am I?” echoes beneath every scene, with answers remaining elusive. Each character is in desperate pursuit of the person they will become, a future version of themselves that is often obscured. The performers, meanwhile, float in and out of role, the slippage between character and self reflecting the range of roles that women are expected to slot into throughout their lives. One performer in particular is asked to constantly transfigure into a range of different individuals, producing a powerful sense of frustrated confusion as she runs to keep up with the demands that society makes of her.
This consideration of identity is the piece’s most intriguing facet, though it is slightly let down by its recourse to critiquing the old “having it all” rhetoric – a vocabulary that is still depressingly present in women’s magazines, but should surely be defunct by now. Similar ideas are more subtly and eloquently explored in the design, which contains the domestic sphere within a space in which familiar household objects are suspended and repurposed, implicitly pushing at accepted ideas of women’s roles and experiences. Despite asking important questions, however, by the end The Paper Birds’ meandering stroll of a show feels overlong. The problem, of course, with a focus on time, is that its passing can feel even slower.