“strikes the perfect balance between fun and thought provoking”
A mix-tape made for aliens, with a love story embedded in its formation. That is the history of the Golden Record – the message sent out to aliens on Voyager 1 and 2 – the legacy of which theatre collective Hot Cousin sets out to interrogate and play with in this wonderfully immersive and eclectic piece of theatre. Part of VAULT festival, Don’t Talk to Strangers sees Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (both leads on the project) reimagined as dreamy lovers who croon to each other in space puns and describe how their love influenced the record of humanity they created.
As it pastiches both their love story and their creative vision, the show aims to explore the power dynamics behind the record – the omissions, the inevitable colonialism – but does so in a way that blends seamlessly into wider questions of what it means to be human. How could we ever represent the infinite variety of our whole species on just one record, is the question the play asks, and it is an incredibly effective one.
The show takes the form of a series of vignettes featuring Sagan, Druyan, a manic interviewer, and a mysterious pink alien. Some are silly, some are dramatic, and some veer away from dialogue altogether into moments of pure emotion, dance, and sound. Cast together, they are weird, experimental theatre at its finest.
Each member of the company takes on a role – Elana Binysh (Interviewer), Stephanie Fuller (Druyan), Madeleine Lewis (Alien), and Ally Poole (Sagan) – but those feel like a limited way to describe their participation in the performance. All depict more than simple characters; they are convincing, inviting, and make the audience feel truly involved in what could have easily been repetitive and overdone scenes.
From the beginning, the show emphasises sound will be important – after all, that is what was sent out on the record – and it provides a subtle backbone for the show. Classical music, disco, remixed breathing, wailing, and other sounds fuse together as the show goes on, all complimented by groovy disco ball lighting. The staging is simple, with a record player often the focus, but allows the cast plenty of movement to explore their multi-dimensional parts.
All in all, in its short but sweet running time Don’t Talk to Strangers strikes the perfect balance between fun and thought provoking. And if you leave with nothing else, at least you’ll have witnessed a jazzy galactic funk remix of Beethoven’s 5th symphony that you didn’t know was missing from your life.
The curtain goes up to reveal a young girl in a white dress and a man wearing the mask of a bull playing the accordion. It’s an ominous picture – one that hints at an extensive genre back catalogue of folk horror and pagan-inspired historical stories. But that is not what MÁM is. When the audience has taken their seats and the lights have dropped, the bull mask is removed and the girl takes out a packet of Tayto crisps and munches on them lavishly. This – folk that are rooted in real and everyday people and experiences – is the true heart of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s wild and whirling dance show.
Along with his company Teaċ Daṁsa, Keegan-Dolan has created a piece that carries a buoyant energy. The dancers soar and fall as one breath. Their spirit is infectious, and indeed it is through the medium of infection that the performers often interact with each, causing one another to fall, laugh, or swoon with a beautiful interconnectedness. From moving fluid solos to high-tempo group stomping and twirling, the choreography showcases a range of the performers’ talents, but also allows pockets of stillness for the audience to take in the music.
The music is another thematic success and draws on multiple inspirations. Concertina player Cormac Begley begins the show on his own with some initial lilting melodies, but he is soon joined by Berlin-based collection s t a r g a z e who add more depth and liveliness. Amidst the many refrains they perform are some recognisable folk songs, but they also use their instruments at some points to create more abrupt and stuttering sounds – emblematic of harsh lives and rugged landscapes. The music is best overall when quick and lively, where the dancers form smooth lines and embody a wonderful leaping vitality.
Black and white is the palette of choice for the costumes (Hyemi Shin), but it is not a harsh black, more a faded workaday black that works to make the simple suits and dresses timeless yet also reminiscent of a stripped-back, more rustic era. The lighting (Adam Silverman) largely bathes the scenes in warmth to bring this out, but dips and dims to match when the mood changes.
Inspired by the history and landscapes of Corca Dhuibhne in Ireland, MÁM enacts a vivid retelling of universal themes – war, romance, sickness, and friendship. Although there are some serious mournful sequences, there are also several moments likely to tug up the corners of your mouth (and let me additionally hint that the opening is not the only appearance of Tayto crisps). The set (Sabine Dargent) works cleverly to peel away layers throughout the show, until all is exposed at the end. And the way the movements of the dancers and the band intertwine towards the end mirrors this. As the work progresses, shoes, ties, and jackets are all abandoned to leave the dancers barefoot and free to show what the work wants to enact – a raw, deep-rooted exploration of the emotive history of a place.