The story of a family in three generations, three pregnancies, all told in a whirlwind of physical theatre movement. Painful memories, family secrets and unspoken things, but also love, support and acceptance. Heartfelt visual theatre devised by London-based ensemble Theatre Re.
A pregnancy is a momentous event in the narrative of any family. Birth shines a light on not just the happy days of new life, but also on the sorrowful stories that keep expecting mothers awake at night. Birth is an attempt to articulate a special, often a most private pain, for which there isn't really enough established vocabulary.
More broadly, Birth explores the theme of family history, the good and the bad, being passed down the generations. How memories are made and carried, how life has a rhythm and a repeating pattern to its beat. This gives the story a natural arc, a certain looming inevitability, and a rather straightforward tonal ending.
On stage, there is a grand dining table and some chairs, a family centrepiece around which life unfolds. We soon meet Sue, Katherine and Emily, a line of strong-willed women — and their partners, too. The show is a fast sequence of vignettes from their lives, interleaved by the dazzling visual effect of massive sheets of cloth floating, twisting and unfolding over the stage, hiding all beneath them.
The great billowing sheets, lit to a warm off-white shade of peach and rich in symbolism, grant a depth and texture to the vast Assembly Room stage, where the action otherwise looks a little small. Bursts of carefully choreographed movement fill the space fine, but the overall effect is still one of excess. Scribbling in a diary, a major plot device, looks downright bland from a distance.
The show plays with tempo all the way through the three ages we get to witness. The action grinds almost to a halt at climactic moments, only to lunge forward as time is wound forward. This gets a little formulaic towards the end, but the effect works, particularly when backed by Alex Judd's beautiful, understated score. The choice moments of silence are truly pregnant with meaning. Indeed Birth probably has the strongest score of the three memory plays of Theatre Re I have now had the pleasure of experiencing.
Sue, the mother first portrayed, chronicles her days and passes her story down to her daughter and grand-daughter. Eventually Sue exits the stage for good, and does so at a majestic step of her own, as the world keeps on spinning around her. This motif of detachment is repeated in Emma's tragedy, in the aftermath of which she finds herself alone frozen in the white spotlight as the rest of the family tries to slowly, haplessly move forward.
And it's not just the mothers. One of the most piercing scenes in Birth arrives when the would-be father is left alone with his stolen dreams. A moment much praised in comments during the Q&A, for the depiction of yet another often overlooked burden.
A meticulously rehearsed show, the precise movement of the group is impressive and a joy to watch, but ultimately doesn't quite advance the story in equal measure. Transitions such as when the sheets transform a table to a bed and back again are delightful, but thin out quickly when repeated.
Emma's nightmare scene, fears manifested, is easily the most striking visual treat in the show. Absolutely world class stagecraft, complete with inspired lighting and sound — head and shoulders above the rest of the show. And therein kind of lies the problem. I agree with director Pigé's Q&A sentiment that one could just watch the billowing sheets for an hour or two and be perfectly entertained, but alas, it is not quite enough for a show.
On one hand Birth is beautiful, expertly executed physical theatre with its many moments of clever dramatic solutions and object driven narratives. On the other hand the show does well in exploring the difficult emotive terrain of family taboos over generations, and other rich themes. The trouble is that the challenging back and forth jumping, and changes in pace make for a rather restless story that is at times in a hurry to wait. The extra 15 minutes on the hour are not spent particularly efficiently.
In order to tell a story that spans generations, Birth robs the audience of some detail and perhaps the full force of quiet pain. But then again, perhaps that is for the best, for I was certainly plenty moved by the show as it stands.
Go see Birth by the reliable Theatre Re for a thoughtful lesson on the fragility of life.