Brighton Festival 2019: King Alfred Leisure Centre
14/05/19 to 23/05/19
Flight is a comic, told not in drawings and print but in models and lights and sound.
The narrative is a tragic personal tale of human drama that is played out on a monstrous scale every day in too many parts of the world.
It’s a serious and devastating indictment of the culpability of the affluent and complacent in Western Europe.
It’s a tribute to courage, determination and familial love.
It’s heavy stuff.
Like a lot of modern graphic novels, the subject matter demands your attention, tugs at your heartstrings and refuses to let you consider its craft.
Who would criticise a tearjerker comic about the death of a loved one for being so poorly drawn that you can’t tell the characters apart? Who but a flinty curmudgeon would point out the way the speech balloons overlap in a strip about victims of abuse?
I guess that would be me… I rarely talk about works unless I like them for their story, but I want to talk about how they tell it. There are other places for reviews of an artwork’s plot.
In Flight, Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds sit the audience down, in the dark, in individual booths, and present them with a long sequence of fragile miniature figures in small boxes. All the while dialogue and music plays in their headphones. The cleverly composed dioramas vary in size, shape and duration. More than once we are left hanging in the space between these ‘panels’ or forced to stretch up or bend down to see the detail above or below our visual horizon.
The scenes are mounted on what must be an impressively large carousel and as they rotate into each booth they light up in sequence, and as they move across our field of vision the light shifts and the shadows change what we are seeing in the three dimensional spaces. In this way each box has the potential to play the part of a tight sequence of comic panels where the beats may be very close together in time or rhythm and then hand the story on to the next box with the gap between them being like a gutter or a page turn, specifying a longer delay between moments.
It’s very, very clever. The realisation that some boxes stayed dark was intriguing and then impressive when I realised that those images were ones that had passed on the carousel earlier – space is saved by having the images wrapped like a ribbon around a column, and it’s done elegantly in a way that serves the pacing by moving the eye up and down so we aren’t passively watching a slideshow.
Using such a novel method of telling a story throws up a barrier at first as the audience has to adapt to an unusual approach. When you watch a stage play after seeing a lot of cinema, the first few minutes can have an Uncanny Valley effect where you are conscious of the actors on a stage… but give yourself to the experience and you soon forget your setting and invest in moment. The same thing happens in Flight, but in an even more intimate manner, as you are so close to the action you can imagine your breath effecting the players – so you hold it in (which is most effective in the sequences that make you gasp out loud and you feel like you’re transgressing as you witness the events).
Like many a good cartoon, the buildings and objects in the dioramas are skewed and scaled to give forced perspectives that suggest depth or pull the reader in. The figures, on the other hand, are consistent and human and the ‘acting’ is very well directed. After I left the venue and thought over what I’d seen, I was remembering these people as drawings… they felt that real.
This production is definitely a ground breaking tour de force – but I do have one caveat to all this gushing:
The carousel turns clockwise, so we experience each moment in order from left to right. That makes sense, the audience is accustomed to reading text and pictures in that direction, but unlike a printed comic where the whole page is in our peripheral vision at all times and the connection between panels can be taken in on first glance, this works against the early scenes of figures walking left to right. They start on our right side and seem to walk backwards to our left… in to the past.
This sense of confusion fades as we get used to the presentation and, like reading manga, after a few minutes it no longer feels ‘wrong’, but I wonder if the earliest scenes would be more comfortable if the movement within the panels was set right to left?
Okay. Back to the story – with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the orphan brothers Aryan and Kabir flee the war in Afghanistan for Europe. It’s quite sickening that when we see them sitting on packing crates we know they are in a lorry, because we know that is how refugees are trafficked. It’s a room, with some boxes and it’s obviously, obviously a lorry. That’s wrong.
If we know that refugees suffer these circumstances, we are not surprised by the harrowing events that befall the boys. And yet, the tale is so well told, we are so close to the children and we linger so long on each view of them that at moments Flight feels more hopeful and more about us than the same tale could manage on film or in prose.
Surely, despite all the things we know about these journeys, there will be a happy ending for Aryan and Kabir (and so absolution for us and our elected governments)… won’t there?
The heartbreaking moments in this story are big and leave us shocked, and then they are also small and leave us ashamed.
I was a vulnerable reader – I went in to this less than 36 hours after I was crying about a local child suicide, so it’s no surprise that I cried in my lonely booth at the love and sadness and danger for these children I’d been forced to care about – but I think you would be forced to care about them too, and you are not a flinty curmudgeon like me, so if you get to see this, take a tissue.
And maybe afterwards take some action.