Mirabel - Chris Goode & Company
Ovalhouse, London. 02.11.18 - 17.11.18
There's something revealing about exploring the end of the world through the eyes of a child. It's a potent mix - infant vulnerability and civilisational destruction. Whitney Houston taught us that the children are our future - what happens when that future goes horribly wrong? Sometimes, kids are absent as society collapses, or their absence causes it - think Children of Men or The Handmaid's Tale. Elsewhere, they're forced to reckon with pretty horrible new existences - in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, both the novel and subsequent film, a father and son struggle to survive in a super-bleak, post-disaster environment. In A Quiet Place, danger lies in the very nature of childhood - innocence, playfulness and noisy fun (spoiler alert if you watch this clip).
Sometimes, that childish gaze reveals something unexpected and moving - in Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti's latest book Anna, a thirteen-year-old girl and her younger brother are left to fend for themselves after a global pandemic kills everyone by the age of fourteen. There is a scene early on - Anna's mother writes a book of instructions for her children, then shuts herself away to die, telling them not to open the door for a year. When they eventually do so, they decorate her skeleton with colour, feathers, jewellery...something beautiful in a world gone wrong.
Chris Goode's Mirabel is full of beauty in a ruined landscape. We meet eight-year-old Mirabel just as the world ends, as everyone and everything dies - classmates, penguins, Paul McCartney, your best friend, your worst enemy, and you too. Delivered with the comfort of a bedtime story and full of that simple, sharp repetition of constant, inescapable death (Rosemary Waugh is spot-on when she recalls Kurt Vonnegut's "so it goes"), it's a gorgeous gut-punch of an opening - a brilliant paean to oblivion. From here, we're treated to a lengthy soundscape, as we sit in the dark - buildings fall, fires rage, bones break, rocks smash. In the pitch black, we recall forest fires, earthquakes, 9/11 - all those little apocalypses. It's enjoyably loud, with a decibellage that makes your ribs thrum, and reminds me how much I wish more theatres would do this sort of thing. It goes on for yonks - and all the better for it.
(Photos by The Other Richard)
As Mirabel's story begins proper, that child's gaze asserts itself. From the ruins of her garden, she finds that the world is now one big backyard - exciting and terrifying in equal measure. She goes in search of a grown-up - they must be around somewhere, having a pow-wow or visiting the garden centre. She rescues plants and rocks, inducts them into her gang. She realises she will never have to do her homework again, and suddenly misses it. In one giddily wonderful scene, she climbs onto a park bench and lets out all the French she has ever learned - testing my GCSE memory, I caught only snatches: I hurt, I am sorry. But even without knowing the language, the meaning is clear, and you realise just how horribly, horribly alone this poor girl is.
Goode's writing (and performance, in this solo show) is hypnotic, ever mixing the monstrous with the evocative, the infantile simplicity with the inescapably horrific: "kind Armageddon" leaves Mirabel no shortage of campfires, and a rock she rests her faithful teddy on is "the exact shape of a decapitated human head". Goode is a compelling theatre maker, and the play hits you again and again with moments of awe, misery and wonder. If the quasi-poetry performance is perhaps lengthened a little beyond its welcome, it's not by much - there's much more wheat than chaff.
I've spent a lot of time explaining the feeling, not the plot. This is in keeping with the show; it's is not a world made for literalism. Each new scene takes place behind successive gauze sheets, with Goode moving further from us physically though not emotionally. And as the play progresses, it drifts away from horrifying future reality and towards something closer to dream state. There are anthropomorphic objects, a loyal yet somehow untouchable dog, and the play's sole adult is a stereotypical World War Two pilot. When Mirabel eventually finds some vestiges of the life she once knew, we've spent enough time in Goode's world to find such features strange - unwelcome intrusions on the play's unique, unreal aesthetic.
Not your average play, then - nor your average sci-fi. The postapocalyptic premise is entirely crucial to the play, yet also somewhat incidental - it's a door for Goode to flex his poetic muscles, and to test the fringes of theatrical storytelling. If I had to ascribe a purpose to it all, try to join the dots between the various seemingly interrelated yet disparate narratives that pop up, especially towards the end...well, I'd be stumped, and I am literally writing a PhD about this. It reminds me of Alistair McDowall's X, another show where science fiction is the vehicle for pushing the theatrical envelope - the plot isn't as important as the effect. And the effect of Mirabel is totalising - an epic yet intimate piece of theatre, a loud and enchanting celebration of childhood, of being alive, and a salute to the power of storytelling.