A little boy is missing in the forest. A frazzled, witchcraft-obsessed detective is losing sleep. A lost prince is looking for his mother, flame-haired witches are on the prowl, and bodies keep mysteriously washing up on the shore of the lake. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. A tangle of fantasy, mundanity and the grotesquely surreal, Dirty Market’s journey into the deep dark woods is disorientation by bafflement, lobbing image after image at its audience, shape-shifting with every step.
Dirty Market identify themselves as theatre magpies, a description that is doubly apt for this latest work-in-progress. Collecting shiny, discarded objects, snippets of fairytale narrative and discordant pop culture riffs, there is also an echo of superstition that haunts this strange, unsettling patchwork of influences. The focal point around which their dizzying carousel turns is a family drifting inexorably apart, mother, father and son all losing one another as they venture into the woods. This fractured narrative is shaken together with a farcical police investigation, a strange woman lurking beside the lake, a dragon-slaying, homesick prince and a host of gurning witches. It’s muddled and dislocated, but somehow stubbornly engaging.
Like the currents that spit up corpses – not drowned, but killed in escalatingly sinister ways – the swirling eddies of Dirty Market’s emerging show wash up clues and fragments rather than anything whole at this stage. It often takes on the quality of a child’s scrapbook, messily pritt-sticked with disconnected but eye-catching elements, everything glittering with the not-yet-dulled sheen of childlike imagination. Any logical order dispensed with, jumbled moments can instead assault us and occasionally stick.
Dirty Market’s scattergun approach, while shooting out a lot that flies puzzlingly past, offers many striking moments. The insistent yet never pointed use of repetition – a line here, an image there – captures a troubling atmosphere of the uncanny, as does the juxtaposition of the recognisable and the alien. We might be lulled into a fleeting moment of comfort, but nothing here is ever quite familiar or stable. And there are the images that linger: Benedict Hopper’s deliciously grotesque witch, eyes popping and mouth wide; the oddly disturbing, blank-featured doll that stands in for a child; an elusive projected video sequence backed by haunting poetry.
“I don’t really know why I’m here,” utters one character towards the end of the performance, voicing something that has lurked in the background all along. The figures that whirl past us feel like the echoes or ghosts of characters, reluctantly recruited into a story that they understand no better than we do. I’m reminded of flicking through the pages of picture books as a child, inventing the stories before I could read all the words, jamming together characters from different fictional worlds. Oxbow Lakes achieves much the same effect; it feels, above all, like play.
While it’s the lake that makes its way into the title, it’s the woods – that dark, unnerving nexus of childhood fears and fairytales, that liminal space of loss and transformation – that exert the strongest gravitational pull on the piece. We are taken by the hand and led into this enchanting, disorientating forest, but by the end we are still tightly tangled in the foliage.