ON paper it just shouldn’t work. The starting point of this collaboration between Scottish Opera and the children’s theatre company Visible Fictions is Philip Pullman’s Clockwork (or All Wound Up). It’s a novel that tells three stories – and not all in the right order.
There’s the one about Fritz, a storyteller who has a cracking tale to tell but hasn’t got round to finishing it. There’s the one about Karl, a clockmaker’s apprentice, who is unable to think of a design for a mechanical figure to appear on the village clock. And there is the story within a story about a prince who keeps his son alive with a clockwork heart.
You’d think that would be complicated enough, especially with Pullman’s deeper themes about the need for narrative and the ethics of mechanisation. But for director Douglas Irvine, it’s just the start of it.
For one thing, the 75-minute show is through-composed. There is the odd snatch of dialogue, but for the most part David Trouton’s musical setting for Irvine’s adaptation tells the whole story in song. As if that wasn’t enough, the three performers – Paul Boyd, Denise Hoey and Neil Thomas – not only act out the story themselves, but create live animation by projecting cut-out two-dimensional figures onto a screen. Kenny Miller’s design also includes a couple of scary large-scale puppets.
Yet somehow Clockwork never seems overloaded. The libretto is very clear, even as it keeps the different stories spinning, and the DIY cartoon presentation is slick enough to be clever without drawing attention to itself. Fans of the book will be delighted and intrigued to see such an unexpected interpretation.
At the same time, for all the company’s efforts, it is hard to warm to the production. It is partly that the singing has a distancing effect, preventing the performers from making a direct connection with the audience in the way they would do as conventional storytellers.
More than that, however, it is the nature of the material itself. With so many interlocking narrative strands, there isn’t a character we can root for nor a single dilemma we can concentrate on resolving. The boy with the clockwork heart comes closest to fulfilling that role, but for the most part he is a peripheral figure, much like the woman who risks losing him as his mechanism starts to fail and can bring him life only by giving (and keeping) her own heart. By the time we’re asked to care about these previously passive characters, it’s too late.
Ironically for a show that uses the heart as its central image, Clockwork is short of a heart of its own, making it a cerebral pleasure but not an emotional one.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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