Sometimes to understand something properly you have to stop and consider it from a different perspective; to take a breath and perhaps see it differently. Half a String take us on a journey to do exactly that in this outstanding, intricate and informative production. A wonderful hidden world is made accessible through a skillful fusion of traditional and technological performance.
Breathe is a beautifully designed (Peter Morton) and flawlessly executed gem, with enchanting elements of story, music and performance layered like leaves on the forest floor. A careful combination of media – puppetry, cinematography, music – are intertwined into a charmingly engaging piece that is constantly shifting and surprising, whilst offering diverse ways to engage with the natural world. It is a complete joy for adults and children alike.
Autumn is fast approaching as our tiny Seedling – a beautifully crafted puppet – begins their journey to join the forest, and we travel with them, exploring the relationships between trees and the other creatures that co-exist in their space. We are assisted in this by our three fabulous storytellers (Emily Essery, Darcey O’Rourke and Morton) who are passionate about trees, and enthusiastically share their curiosity and knowledge with the young audience. They are really likeable and (it turns out) talented.
To understand the world of the tree completely we are shown it in multiple ways and from different viewpoints: and that’s where live-streamed close-up photography comes in. Using cameras within detailed small-scale sets they project views of the forest up on to a larger screen. The audience are shown everything from above the tree canopy, down to the earthen floor, and even go beneath it. It’s a tightly choreographed, exciting and surprising process. I’ve seen other shows that use close up camera work on puppets, and it’s always very interesting, but sometimes runs the risk of leaving a theatre audience gazing at a screen instead of the live performance. However, Breathe goes delightfully beyond this. The action reaches right out into the auditorium where the excited children can see the equipment being used, identifying the technology, but also enjoying playful proximity with the friendly, fun Seedling puppet.
The gentle story embraces ideas of scale, time and revelation, capturing those elements beautifully in an assortment of ways. Fabulous design features mean information is continuously and surprisingly revealed, to the delight of the captivated young audience. The puppetry is dexterous and charming; from the moment Seedling breaks through their acorn shell, to their flight around the auditorium, to a silly visiting woodlouse and an intrusive woodpecker. The characterisation invites a warm emotional attachment to the natural theme, which might even bring a little tear to the eye. Complex ideas of mycelium connections are also made easy to grasp, innovatively articulated using light and sound.
The forest is explained through storytelling, with lyrical dialogue and marvellous music, as our storytellers seamlessly connect shifting scenes, but the amazing soundtrack is key to the gorgeously evocative atmosphere here in the forest. Lovely songs by Avi Simmons give a folksy, ethereal feel to the space, and are impressively performed by the cast, with some outstanding work by O’Rourke in particular. Then the live acoustic music, including guitar and percussion, is integrated with very different but wholly complementary technological elements, including loop work, and powerful drum and bass sounds (Suitman Jungle). Simple finger clicking imaginatively announces rain, building into a downpour. It all gives really rounded representation to the many changing environments of the forest.
This is a delightfully imaginative, innovative and emotionally engaging production that will send you home bursting with ideas, information and questions. It might also have the family using their smartphones quite differently!
Written by: Louisa Ashton
Story and Design by: Peter Morton
Dramaturg & Guest Direction by: Emma Willatts
Guest Puppetry Direction by: Elaine Hartley
Songs by: Avi Simmons
Lighting Design by: Jack Weir
AV Design by: Boyd Branch
Illustration by: Caleb Simmons
Breathe is for anyone aged over 6. It run as part of the Little Angel Children’s Puppet Festival and has now completed its current run. The festival continues into September, full details can be found here.