A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Márquez was first published in 1955. The winged creature of the title is discovered collapsed in a pool of mud the morning after a night tinged with infant fever and impending panic. Kneehigh and the Little Angel Theatre previously used the work to create a beautifully melancholic piece of theatre for children. To say that Lara Foot’s play, The Inconvenience of Wings, is based on the short story would be wrong. ‘Inspired by’ might come closer, but that seems a little weak. Márquez’s magic realism work is as difficult to neatly categorise as its title character and Foot fully embraces its amorphous qualities, letting little bits of it bleed through her play like an semi-dormant obsession that has to be returned to.
The most overt inclusion of the piece of fiction occurs at the end – or perhaps the beginning – of the play. By which I mean the moment I’m referring to is technically at the end of Foot’s script, but since the work is organised as a sequence of scenes that go backwards through time, what happens last really happens first. Paul (Andrew Buckland) meets Sara (Jennifer Steyn) for the first time. Fizzing and flickering with energy like a florescent strip light, Sara garbles about the book she is reading – Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. She likes the story so much, she says, she bought nine copies of it (a sign of her manic tendencies that will later mark her own life and marriage to Paul). At that point, the story is condensed down to a traditional ‘and then the angel came to save us’ plot. Buoyed up by his immediate infatuation with Sara, Paul is cast in the role of angel, a variant of the knight in shining armour who can provide succour for Sara.
This reading of the story and the casting of Paul and Sara in the role of saviour and saved, might seem like nothing more than the sweetly flirtatious start to a relationship. It is, however, dangerously simplistic and, ultimately, unsustainable. Paul, as loving and devoted as he may be to his wife, is not – the play at other points suggests – the one with the wings. Instead, Sara is beset with debilitating, vivid dreams about being face down on the ground and unable to rise either because of, or in spite of, her wings. The line in the text that the title is taken from recounts how the couple that discover the Old Man cheerfully ignore the huge, feathered additions to his body because it benefits them to understand him as just an average castaway from a foreign country. Márquez’s story is as much – if not more – about the treatment of the Old Man by those around him, as it is about the new arrival himself. Similarly, Foot’s play explores how family, friends and professionals act towards those, like Sara, with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.
With its traditional domestic setting and the constant threat of one character shattering the familial set-up, there are echoes of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams reverberating throughout this production. Indeed, in all of the Baxter Theatre productions (Mies Julie, Tobacco, Karoo Moose and this one) I watched in Edinburgh, elements of physical theatre and choreographed sequences featured heavily. In this particular play, pieces of semi-somnambulant movement recall the opening scene of John Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie when Laura enters the stage like an oily spectre conjured by Tom. The flashback format of Foot’s work arguably makes it something of a memory play, and it is also this decision that places the emphasis on those surrounding Sara; these are their memories of her.
The strength of Foot’s play is its use of imagery. Along with the recurrent flapping of wings in many forms, Sara recounts other dreams and visions. In one, she imagines a floating avocado attached by an umbilical chord to her belly, creating an image that could slide perfectly into the artworks of Frida Kahlo. First introduced as a Fine Art student, it’s a shame the play doesn’t feature more of Sara as a creative, passionate person. Her ‘brilliance’ is referred to but never really shown. Instead the times when her condition either makes her incoherently and dangerously manic or weighed down with depression take centre stage. Despite the foregrounding of her mania, Steyn expertly grounds her performance and avoids becoming overly hysterical. Even in the shoutiest parts, there is always a sedate edge of sorrow to her actions.
There is also a fascinating line left hanging where Professor James (a suitably measured and calm Mncedisi Shabangu) suggests Paul is addicted to Sara’s condition, as intoxicated by its intensity as she is. What The Inconvenience of Wings does well is to refuse to neatly capture how Paul feels towards his wife. Buckland’s nuanced portrayal of Andrew displays the difficulty in loving someone who needs so much care and attention, including the guilt at sometimes finding it hard to provide. Messy and difficult as it is, Paul and Sara’s tale is fundamentally a love story – both convenient and inconvenient.
The Inconvenience of Wings is on until 27 August 2017 at Assembly George Square. Click here for more details.