Good with Maps – Journey’s without, within and through time. (Theatre Review)
Good With Maps
Invisible Circus, bAKEHOUSE, Siren Theatre Company
Kings Cross Theatre November 4 – 26
Photo credits Lucy Parakhina
“I’m good with Maps” declares Jane Phegan immersed in her character created by Noëlle Janaczewska. It’s a bold and declarative statement, not unlike the badges of honour we appoint ourselves in the early stages of relations with other humans. “I’m an accountant” or “I sing” or “I love to travel.” A kind of Twitter, Facebook or dating site introduction that says a lot and a little about a person. However, this character is a woman, and it is a conversationally “known” trait of femaleness to be “bad with maps.” The sentence immediately takes on a challenge, not only to a conventional male narrative, but to the question of language and how we use it to communicate and/or obfuscate. Janaczewska’s character never seeks or bothers to convince us of this, but she describes her travel in the Amazon as a collection of observant phenomena, including that which she sees (description of the jungle) that which she knows (wondering where the factories of exploitation are) that which she feels (her relationship to her sick father etched in her experience) and a romanticism that elevates her soul (connection to previous travel documentaries that projected a Dickens like insistence on clouding observation with a factious universal.)
In this way Janaczewska makes her character an anthropologist working through herself. Good with maps implies she can find her way to a place, but it also implies she can find her way back. The metaphor of her ultimate journey is into the heart of herself posits against the image of the female explorer. All her role models, all those she reads are men and while she can see them in her mind’s eye she is acutely aware can’t emulate them. She is the first woman explorer, bringing the inevitable difference of the female perspective. Her predecessors include the ridiculously egotistical Fordlandia built by Henry Ford and the aggressively inaccurate Heart Of Darkness written by Joseph Conrad. Janaczewska’s character makes no judgement upon these very male failures, rather sees her father and his frailty in the seeds of her experience of her own journey. Everywhere she goes, a man has been there before her, and yet she sees what that man has missed. Phegan retains the generous eye of a female, but includes her witty, wry observations. Janaczewska’s point is clear. The “always already everything” that her character carries with her affords her an expository clarity her predecessors never imagined possible.
The romantic idea of the female explorer dealing with the death of her father is an impossible to ignore metaphor, particularly when the one female writer carried along the journey is Virginia Wolf. Phegan tells us her father introduced her to Dostoyevsky and other great (male) writers, but our protagonist is quick to find her own path to Virginia Wolf and the room of her own. As our protagonist loses her father to a terrible illness and finds her way through a dark territory only discovered by men, we get a glimpse of the enormous task ahead for thinking women. The budding presumption is that every territory first founded by our “father” is tainted by his observation and attempt to place his stamp upon it. Nothing is properly discovered until ours and other voices are added to the revelation. It is as G.K. Chesterton said of Charles Dickens, “… he did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places.” Janaczewska asks us, as if we were explorers venturing into the uncharted, to approach everything only touched by men as if its truth was absent.
Good With Maps is one of those rare and beautiful productions I dream about, where a fine writer has handed a text to a fine director who calls forth a great performance from a fine actor who inspires creatives around her to produce their best for the show. Noëlle Janaczewska’s script is fat with inspirational thought and her essay/monologue experimenting is developing into its own modern expression. The language here is intricate and finely woven, operating very much in the way modern, digital-age thought is collated and expressed. Still, the language retains its rich poetic beauty. She has the perfect director in Kate Gaul who embodies the character and the writer in her abyssal grasp of the complex text, turning her skilled hand to the nuanced and underexplored feminine depths of narrative and voice. Kate Gaul has the perfect subject to mould in Jane Phegan whose immersion is unparalleled as she presents to us that most unknown creature, the female explorer/philosopher/anthropologist.
Rounding out this great triumvirate are Alice Morgan’s beautiful designs including her murmuration of small tin foil boats, Louise Mason’s subtle lighting that seems to come up from beneath the narrative rather than impose god-like over it, and Nate Edmondson’s sound that springs into the production with alacrity and verve from a certain time and space.
Good With Maps is an exquisite production, knotty, agrarian and ideologically blasphemous. It’s not easy – this is not a visit to the theatre to “chillax” – but it is untamed and necessary, lyrical and intense. I found myself hanging off every word and surprised when it reached its end.