We say a lot of things about boxes: think outside of the box, don’t box yourself in, something about Pandora. They can symbolise order, containment, rigidity or they can gesture towards their potential opposites, creativity, rebellion, chaos.
The Human Zoo’s most recent devised production starts from a cardboard box. The prologue is an invitation into a specific corrugated container. As we travel inside, the production riffs on these meanings, spilling out chaos at some points, confronting barriers at others.
GIANT, in a nutshell, is trying to do some big things. Winner of Les Enfants Terribles Award in 2014, The Human Zoo have used their melange of live music, poetry, movement, and puppetry to tell this box-filled bildungsroman about a boy named Tommy. The first section is a montage reminiscent of Up, or Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Circle Game’. It’s a quickly spinning cycle of characters, generation by generation. The shifts are well executed, and the ensemble is strongly in sync. Some clever visuals appear, particularly a puppeteered bowler signifying Tommy’s absent father.
Yet there is a tension between the dialogue and the action. The performers react to each other audibly, occasionally with a comment or two, but it’s in a half-hearted way. It remains unclear whether the dialogue is an add-on to the movement or if it is integral to it. The effect is one of uncertainty, furthered by the fact that where the visuals turn a bit muddled the dialogue becomes the critical device to tell the story.
The problem speaks to a greater issue of commitment. With so many ways to tell a story, the structural form of GIANT stomps around. And it only sometimes works. After the montage, we move to the more real-time heart of the story. Tommy is learning that the life that has been given to him — working at his uncle’s company, going to university — is unfulfilling. His girlfriend Alex feels the pressure of the race for ‘success’. From there, we get a cabaret-like showcase of each character’s (and each performer’s) particular talents and sentiments.
That’s the most entertaining and inventive part of the production. Florence O’Mahony delivers an impressive spoken word performance, and each member of the ensemble shines in this strange cabaret interjection that jolts out from an otherwise predictable, perhaps formulaic, story. A well-deserved mention should also go to Nick Gilbert, whose comic timing throughout is sharp and utterly hilarious.
The piece strives to make its point as Tommy finds meaning in his family history. In the objects of our past, in the minds of our ancestry, there is a sort of interwoven giant thing: an identity, a beautiful complexity, an astonishing face with no singular name. It can be part of us if we so choose, it grounds and makes us bigger than our paper-pushing jobs might suggest.
It’s not a bad message, but here it doesn’t hit its gargantuan potential. In trying to do so much, each individual component suffers. The production could well heed those same box-like phrases we started with: more thinking outside of the box and less being boxed in would allow us this giant to make a real impact.
GIANT was on as part of Incoming Festival. Click here for more of their programme.