Seen previously at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009, ‘Borges and I’ has been developed and evolved by the Idle Motion theatre company for this latest outing at the New Diorama Theatre. The auditorium itself is a spacious, wheelchair-friendly room set at a comfortable temperature – theatregoers to this venue are hardly likely to think the heating has been cranked up to the max in an attempt to increase sales of beer and ice cream. As the audience files in, a projection of the pages of a book being read is displayed. On the floor are piles of books, some tied together into bundles with string. There are bookshelves, on which are an almost absurd amount of books of various sizes and genres, which made me wonder where on earth did Idle Motion get them all from? Perhaps they have a very generous benefactor – either way, most of those books must have been on loan.
The plot is packaged within a lecture in a library, regarding the Latin American literary figure Jorge Luis Borges (pronounced horr-hey lu-ee borr-hey) (1899-1986). It’s immediately brought into the twenty-first century by a failing PowerPoint presentation, or rather a projector that conks out after two minutes, such that the speaker is forced to think about what she is talking about, rather than over-relying on copious notes on the slides. The audience is spared from the monotonous lecture as an umbrella is opened, loose pages of a book fall across the stage, and details of Borges’ life are lived out through the cast.
Literary works are discussed in a local book club, chaired by Hilary (Grace Chapman), a slightly abrupt and very authoritarian figure, whose mannerisms and lack of people skills give humour to the proceedings. One club member, Sophie (Sophie Cullen), commits the cardinal sin of not quite finishing the book of the month within the month in question. It limits her ability to discuss the finer details of the conclusion of the said book. She falls in love with Nick (Joel Gatehouse), a new member of the club and work colleague of long-standing book club member Jim (Julian Spooner). Nick even moves in with Sophie, and had this been the National Theatre we might have been treated to (or tortured with) full frontals: here, they make do with sex with underwear on and dimmed lighting. It works though, it really does.
I am a little miffed at having had to sit through an optometrist examination performed on stage however. Perhaps I am biased having been subjected to such examinations in my own life, but frankly it’s got to rank amongst the most boring pieces of theatre I have ever seen. “Is it better with? Or without? Look at the light in my hand and follow it from left… to right. Can you read out the top line?” It does have a point, however: we discover that Sophie’s excuse for not having finished the book on time is genuine. She has been suffering from blurred vision and headaches, and is diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that will, after a number of stages in which colour perception gradually fades, eventually render her blind.
Such is what happened with Jorge Luis Borges, who could not help but see the irony in being appointed Director of the National Library of Argentina as his eyesight was failing. God had blessed him, he mused, with 800,000 volumes and darkness all at once. Not that this dimmed his imagination – on the contrary, it may well have emboldened it.
Borges was a writer of fiction, an essayist and poet; so it is only a matter of time before his volume of short-stories and parables, ‘Labyrinths’, was discussed in the Oxford book club. Jim, who up to this point had given mostly rudimentary contributions to the book club’s discussions, mostly because he keeps reading a different book each month to everyone else, finds himself disagreeing once more with most of his fellow bookworms, this time because he really enjoyed the philosophies of Jorge Luis Borges and felt he totally understood where he was coming from. Some of Borges’ concepts are complex and deep, and yet accessible.
For instance, every person who performs Shakespeare becomes William Shakespeare, or so Borges thought. It’s the sort of soundbite that would be (and probably has been) examined and pilloried by stand-up comedians, but in a way Shakespeare is indeed brought back to life by a company performing one of his works. Perhaps in this way Idle Motion has brought Jorge Luis Borges back to life too. Even if their portrayal of book clubs will hardly lead anyone who isn’t already in one to consider joining.
Like the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, there is in the epilogue of ‘Borges and I’ an apology of sorts, as if to say that any shortcomings or misgivings that the audience may have about anything they have just seen are entirely the fault of the cast and directors, and not that of Jorge Luis Borges. But no apology was needed, they have done their subject matter justice. I am particularly impressed by Sophie Cullen, whose character dealt with such a devastating diagnosis with a maturity beyond her tender years. I’d like to think that if I should ever be diagnosed with a similar condition that I’d want to possess that kind of determination to carry on living as normal a life as possible for as long as possible; to have control over blindness rather than have it control me.
The show is equally amusing and poignant, and could well have become something pedantic and pretentious in the hands of a less talented and less creative group. That a story about the life of an Argentinean philosopher is so very engaging is at least in part due to some stunning choreography and movement, which really has to be seen to be believed.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Borges and I
Edinburgh Fringe Sell-Out and New Diorama Associate Ensemble Idle Motion return with their stunning Total Theatre Award nominated show Borges and I.
Exploring the life of visionary writer Jorge Borges and his remarkable work whilst integrating creative stagecraft, innovative video projection and beautiful physicality, hundreds of books transform into a plethora of images, from a flock of birds to a city skyline, from an airplane to a universe of libraries.
Moving seamlessly between the worlds of Borges’ work and his readership, a vivid portrait is revealed of a man on the brink of blindness. Intertwined with this narrative is the tender story of a couple meeting at a haphazard book-group, brought together through their shared love of literature.
Idle Motion are a New Diorama Theatre Associate Ensemble. This production is supported by the New Diorama Emerging Companies Fund and supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. Idle Motion are an associate company of The Lowry, Salford.
BORGES AND I is devised by the company
Hillary – Grace Chapman
Sophie – Sophie Cullen
Jorge Borges – Julian Spooner
Gabby – Ellie Simpson
Alice – Kate Stanley
Nick – Joel Gatehouse
Creative team include:
Artistic Director – Paul Slater
Technical Manager – Gregory Cebula
Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th December 2014 @ 19:30
Saturday matinee @ 15:30
To book tickets over the telephone please call the New Diorama Theatre box office on 0207 383 9034.
Friday 12th December 2014