Idle Motion’s latest project tells the story of war photographer Gerda Taro, bringing her out from under the more famous Robert Capa’s shadow, in a procession of moving snapshots played out over the Spanish Civil War. Interspersed with this, we watch Capa’s brother, Cornell, and his assistant, long after Robert’s death, seek out a briefcase of missing negatives from the period, rediscovering Gerda’s work and her influence on Capa, long forgotten.
The war photography theme and thriller-across-two-timelines narrative of Chimerica meets the patriarchal take on the art world of Big Eyes, with an awful lot of history for the Idle Motion team to cover. The devisers manage this without saturating us with information and without sacrificing their seemingly effortless storytelling aesthetic. The design by Ellen Nabarro has us facing a wall of compartments, the opened briefcase of negatives that is both the treasure of the modern story, and the entry point for the historical narrative. The cast lift rolls of film from this giant briefcase tray, and as with an envelope of Kodak prints, we flick through the negatives first, the cast giving us glimpses of scenes from almost the whole play, tableaux and snatches of dialogue, before we settle into properly studying each exposure. It’s a bold start which would drag in the hands of most companies, but smart pacing and sheer collaborative energy set us up for a story that spans decades and the western world, and have us piecing the play together as it unfolds longhand in a very satisfying fashion.
Scruffy and unprofessional Jewish Hungarian photographer Andre Friedman (Julian Spooner, whose scruffy unprofessionalism appears to be drop dead gorgeous by modern standards) meets Jewish German refugee Gerda Pohorylle (Grace Chapman) in Paris, who is fascinated by him and his camera. He teaches her photography and they fall in love in the dark room – a twisting, sensual encounter that is merely a high point in the constantly shifting and driven choreography that characterises the piece. Gerda and Andre change their names, inventing the famous American photojournalist Robert Capa, and Gerda steps into role as his agent. But both are snapping photos, and before long Gerda has got her press card and they both head off to capture the Spanish Civil War. Where Capa sees a job, Gerda cannot help but identify with the Republican cause and the Spanish people. She gets close to the action, close to danger, and fears that taking photos isn’t enough.
The first Idle Motion play I have seen, Shooting with Light demonstrates a brilliant approach to historical material – focusing in on the less-recognised figure of Taro and not being sucked into the more prominent Capa narrative, open-handedly dismissing what is not useful to that central story – such as David ‘Chim’ Seymour’s work, and constantly infusing their storytelling medium with meaning. Taro prowls through a dark room strewn with dead bodies, the flash from her camera illuminating unseen things – once the photo is taken, the bodies move. “Is documenting what is going on enough?”, the play asks, and physically responds: yes – it brings the dead to life. Gerda and the conflict are only truly alive in the images made and kept of them – and this play is a roll of film holding images of both.