The programme blurb for A Wild, Growling Happiness, presented by NUKU Theatre Estonia, talked vaguely of childhood, play and wild imaginings; this was enticing at first, even if this vagueness did seem to be carried through into the structure of a piece at times.
Music is integral to the production; a djembe, some singing bowls and a bodhran bring a primal note to the performance and bring a sense of drive to the storytelling. To this percussive beat, familiar objects are reduced to basic shapes, they become things with which to be played: a high-heeled shoe becomes a mobile phone, a knife and fork become a musical instrument, joining in with the rhythmic beating of the drum. Tokens of everyday materialism are here exoticised and defamiliarised, looked at with new eyes. A group of performers bring twisted sheets to life, skilfully manipulating the familiar once again. While on one level this is an exercise in the kind of storytelling which we often forget to do as grownups, on another level it’s an act of rejection of the layers of material things around which many people build their lives; in their place there is the simple urge to play.
The surtitles – in Estonian and English – frame the stage and create a point of contention. The skilled female cast create people from their twisted sheets, people whose emotions are a joy to comprehend. I find my eyes darting from the performers to the words, as if watching a tennis match, wondering which is more deserving of my attention. To my ears, the lyrical Estonian language is simply background noise, with a universalising emotional quality surpassing the literal and often inadequate translations of the surtitles. The power of theatre so often in its use of universal themes and tropes; here the words offer another timbre, a resonant sound which goes beyond a clearly defined message.
Yet, with one of the performers typing her responses to the action onstage, these surtitles become more dynamic, not just a translation of the action, but an interpretation of it. Asking ‘Is this what you learnt in drama school?’ the performer takes on the role of a cynical audience member, second-guessing the audience’s reaction as we watch on. A hall of mirrors effect ensues as her words are writ large.
The contrast between control and chaos is a theme which underpins the whole performance; the puppets are eventually let loose above us, taking control of the life they have been given. This dichotomy also intrudes on the form of the piece itself: some sections seem tightly choreographed, while others have a far more improvised feel.
The beautiful and surprising details of this performance make up for its occasionally slow pace and obviously devised feel. The audience is invite to find a story within the most simple of gestures, and this is a real joy. The puppeteers soon fade into the black, allowing the audience to create their own narratives, to create something richer and more positive than the surtitles could have anticipated.