During the COVID-19 epidemic, existential-crisis is something that many of us have faced head-on as lockdown means we are encased within the way-too familiar four walls of our rooms. As the ‘new normal’ has led to a physical and often mental disconnection from many of our closest peers, we have been left in a period of self-reflexive grappling with identity. The ‘new normal’ of social distancing and masks have also been something which the theatre has had to adapt to. Off The Page Theatre, in Pareidolia, merge these two restrictions together, when a dystopian Alice In Wonderland meets a 1984 narrative.
Written and directed entirely by final-year students at the School of Performance and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds, Pareidolia showcases the promising young talent of the future- particularly in production and choreography. The show celebrates the 200th anniversary of John Tenniel’s birth by paying homage to the illustrations he created for Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland series. Speaking on the YouTube stream directly before the showing, the cast and crew explained how they wanted to “take illustrations and bring them off of the page”.
The clinical white set exists as a sort of tabula rasa, which allows the audience to focus on the bildungsroman narrative of the – unnamed – female protagonist. As Tenniel’s illustrations are projected across the stage, an ominous reverse Big Brother-like presence leads a monologue which echoes “break the reflection and face the distortion, the fragments of your soul are acts of proportion”. This initiates ourselves as audience members to begin our own spiritual quest of self-identity and reality.
During the opening of the show, a character (named as Kitty) is creating an image of the protagonist out of a ball of yarn, making aphorisms such as “You are not a perfect etching of what you once were”. There are fair few vapid, quasi-intellectual phrases thrown about, and it begins to wear quite thin by the end of the first scene. Although, it is interesting how motifs, such as the smashed glass left by Kitty at the end, are utilised and developed throughout the play.
Perhaps the most striking use of visuals in Pareidolia occur in the latter half of the play. As the protagonist enters different facets of some kind of parallel universe, we encounter socially-distanced chess pieces (wearing masks of course). Their white and red costumes are simple yet elegant, and appear to represent a distinction between control and danger. This juxtaposition of colour is slightly reminiscent of the sartorial choices of the recent TV adaptation of The Handmaids Tale.
Through the interaction between the buoyant red chess piece and the staunch white piece, the audience learn “We’ve been white chess piece down for a while now”. Perhaps this was our protagonists past-life, and she’s embracing her forage into a reality unbound by social constraints.
One thing’s for sure – the play keeps you guessing.
Also striking in the latter half is the choreography, directed by Lottie Whiteman and Sophie Pitts; movement is used throughout the play as a form of communication. As the chess pieces move in a synchronised routine, the refrain it is both ritualistic and ominous. However, it accumulates into the use of shadows in order to imitate the unbeknown self as the refrain of “They don’t control you, rise up against them think for yourself” echoes around the virtual theatre. It’s at this point the protagonist (who is finally revealed as Alice) shouts “This is my subconscious, I am in control!”. The lights dim. The audience is left with a projection of Tenniel’s illustration, with the message “She’s ready now. Yours faithfully, John Tenniel”.
Pareidolia is then a play that plagues you with as many questions as it does answers. But that’s exactly what the writers were steering you towards – the notion being that reality is never a straightforward concept. Altogether, the production is a consistent performance carved by the talented young producers of the future.
You can watch Off The Page Theatre’s production of Pareidolia here.
Words by Charity Swales.
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