Imagine waking up alone on a boat, in the middle of the ocean. Imagine realising that you might be the last person left alive on this planet. As part of Heads Up Festival, Pale Blue Dot by Ensemble 52 places their hero, Aiko, on a post-apocalyptic Earth facing the next Ice Age with widespread floods engulfing all but the tallest of buildings underwater. Choosing to stray away from honing in on the environmental causes of this, Ensemble 52 focus on the human experience and how one person might seek a future for our species against all the odds.
Conveying the reality of a post-apocalyptic landscape on-stage is a tricky challenge, particularly when we are often spoiled by vivid on-screen depictions in film and video games. Ensemble 52’s fusion of live performance, music, illustration (and even a spot of on-stage pottery) promises to offer a new theatrical perspective on writer Dave Windass’ imagined world. Unfortunately a lack of cohesion means that the pieces don’t quite fit together.
Sarah Brignall is the sole performer on stage and acts as the storyteller style persona of protagonist Aiko. She also doubles up as the voice of Toru, the mysterious ancient Egyptian caracal who becomes an unlikely companion on her journey. Supported by Sleightholme’s gorgeous illustrations, Brignall often sucks you into a number of profound, self-conducted existential conversations. But it’s never exactly clear who Brignall’s storyteller/character is. During the opening and closing of the piece, Brignall addresses the audience directly, seemingly as Aiko herself. But she narrates the rest of the show from a book, making it unclear whether she is Aiko or is just retelling her story. The stark contrast in appearance between the live-action and illustrated depictions of Aiko further muddies the relationship between character and performer, as does Brignall’s laid back, storyteller style performance.
Sleightholme’s graphic novel inspired illustrations, whilst beautiful and stylish, add further confusion by flitting between colour and black and white without any apparent reason and the occasional reused image disrupts the immersion. Whilst these inconsistencies work to support a stream of consciousness approach to the narrative, the focus on the illustrations throughout the production also sacrifices the quality of the staging. With a clearer understanding of the performer’s relationship with the narrative, the character and the illustrations, Pale Blue Dot’s unique fusion of forms might be onto something.