A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

13/08/22

Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez and adapted for the stage by Dan Colley, Manus Halligan and Genevieve Hulme Beaman, this is the tale of Elisenda and Palayo, two impoverished people who live in a rickety shack on the edge of a small town. After three days of relentless rain, they are out killing crabs, which they believe are making their baby sick. And then they make an unusual find in their muddy courtyard. It’s… well, the clue’s in the title.

The ensuing events are related mostly by Elisenda (Karen McCartney) in a deliciously sinister style. She’s aided by Palayo (Manus Halligan), who barely utters a word, but moves humbly around the stage, using a curious mixture of handicrafts and high-tech devices to illustrate the story – a series of simplistic figurines, illuminated by tiny cameras and lights, take us into their miniature world.

The simplest techniques are often the most effective: a sweater pulled off and tucked into an elbow becomes a baby; a pair of black gloves and a frame transforms McCartney into a spider-woman. Handfuls of feathers are periodically blown around the stage by a strategically placed fan. While all this might sound underwhelming on paper, the result is genuinely enchanting and the magical atmosphere is heightened by haunting soundscapes, whispers, susurrations and chants, created on loop recordings by the performers as the action progresses.

Marquez’s subtext is that humanity rarely cherishes that which it does not understand. Elisenda and Pelayo treat the angel – for this is what we assume him to be – with cruelty, locking him up, earning money by allowing the people of the local town to pay to look at him, even branding him with a hot iron to make him their property. Somehow we feel genuine pity for a tiny figure made of wire and string.

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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