At the very first Being Human festival back in 2014, we were lucky enough to be awarded funding to explore how fragments of ancient Greek ‘lost’ plays might be turned into art. A collaboration between academics and theatre-makers, we spent five days working with actor-devisers, a dramaturg, a sound engineer, a movement specialist and a puppeteer, towards a discussion panel and a short showing of our early ideas.
Right from the start we knew that we didn’t simply want to do a straightforward reconstruction of an ancient play. Working with a text that hasn’t been staged for thousands of years was exciting, but we were also drawn to the fragmented form of what survives. We wanted to do something that celebrated the fact that we have only fragments, and that treated it as a virtue rather than an inconvenience. We spent the workshop period in 2014 experimenting with how we could capture fragmentation artistically, and discovering ways in which seeing part of an image or a scene could be more compelling than seeing the whole thing. We were able to showcase a snapshot of some of these early ideas in the festival.
Since then, we’ve been working on the huge challenge of how to turn these snapshots and ideas into a piece of theatre with a coherent story. In the first stages of the project, we looked at several different plays. But the one we were most drawn to was the story of Cresphontes. It’s the story of a man who usurps the throne of an ancient kingdom by killing his brother, and of the brother’s surviving son, who returns seeking vengeance. The reason we liked it so much was that the story itself revolves around the problems that we face when we are dealing with fragmentary information. The characters tell partial truths, make plans while missing crucial information, and leap to conclusions from misunderstandings.
We’ve been also working with neuroscientist Mark Stokes of Oxford University on how ideas of fragmentation relate to research on the fragmented nature of our human perception. Though we think we experience the world as a coherent narrative, our brains in fact create this illusion, extrapolating partial information from our senses by guesswork, and rewriting our memories to fit our present situation. We’ve been working on how we can incorporate illusions and research from psychology into the show to challenge the audience’s beliefs about their own perceptions.
And, along the way, we’re incorporating a healthy dose of jazz-singing and shadow puppetry. We’re now in the middle of rehearsals for our first work-in-progress showings, and we hope to develop the piece further towards a full production and tour in 2018. The first outings of Fragments took place in London between the 19 and 21 October, and will be in Oxford on 2 November. Although we are not part of the festival this year we have been excited by preparations and the buzz across the country, and wish the best of luck to all the organisers!