Many of us grew up hearing the tragic tale of Icarus, the imprisoned craftsman’s son who flew too close to the sun. Although there are elements of the macabre within this Greek myth, the wonder at a human flying with wings undoubtedly sparked the imagination of many a young listener. Backhand Theatre has taken this myth a step further and picks up the story after Icarus has fallen. Seizing the opportunity to use stunning aerial stunts, Backhand has created a visually beautiful, family friendly show.
Founded in 2010 by Jake Linzey and Nicola Buys, Backhand established itself as a circus theatre company. However, according to Linzey, none of the actors in Icarus, a Story of Flight are originally professional circus performers. “Our cast members are trained from scratch to do the circus skills which is incredibly rewarding, as we are constantly learning and mastering new skills. Everyone looks out for each other, so it is a really safe environment to learn in.”
Backhand Theatre certainly enjoys what they do, but they take children’s theatre seriously. Linzey explains the importance of this. “Unlike some productions, ours is not a gimmick. We have a genuine passion for producing children’s theatre which is not patronising and has a value in it.” This ethos shines through in other Backhand Productions, which will also be appearing at Edinburgh this year. Greek Myths for Kids and The Velveteen Rabbit are also incredibly visually impressive; the story is brought to life for the young audience using realistic puppetry. The aim is to encourage children to participate in the production; although agreeing they can be less withdrawn than adults, Linzey emphasises the importance of planning ahead. “Children find very different things scary to adults, so we have to take things sensibly but still allow room for them to suspend their beliefs within the performance.” Previously critically acclaimed Edinburgh Festival shows, Greek Myths for Kids and The Velveteen Rabbit enable Backhand Theatre to showcase their unique brand of children’s theatre and charm audiences of old and young alike.
Alongside the family orientated shows in Backhand Theatre’s Edinburgh 2012 programme, Tales from Edgar Allan Poe certainly gives their line-up an edge. Demonstrating the versatility of the company, this production is set in an asylum, which suggests that the audience should expect a dark and complex production. Linzey agrees that there are sinister aspects to Tales from Edgar Allan Poe, but also discloses that it is not entirely deadly serious. “Although we have tried to steer away from the Dracula clichés, a nod to it evokes humour in the production.” Linzey goes on to explain how this production has evolved from last year with the assistance of South Hill Park Arts Centre, in Bracknell. “We took the show back to the table and had a research and development week, resulting in a subtle production with darker undertones beneath the nicer surface.” Furthermore, Linzey describes how the character of the unnamed visitor in the asylum asks questions that the audience would want to know. It appears that Tales of Edgar Allan Poe is designed to be highly engaging for the audience.
An accumulation of four different Edgar Allan Poe stories, this production uses the circus and aerial skills that have played a huge part in Backhand Theatre’s past work. “Our approach to this has been generally organic and we have tried to tie in the essential aspects of the different tales,” explains Linzey. “However I think we have also approached it academically; we have forever been improving Tales from Edgar Allan Poe.” The Raven, arguably one of Poe’s most famous tales, is to feature within this production and features Derek Jacobi. ”He recorded the voice for the raven. Going to his house to record it was a fantastic experience; he was genuinely charming and told us some lovely stories.” It is clear that the redevelopment of the original production has resulted in a visually spectacular show, yet with the same level of complexity.
The support given to Backhand Theatre by South Hill Park Arts Centre has played a huge role in the development of the company. “We are now based at South Hill Park in Bracknell; they really care about developing theatre and have given us much support along the way.” The development of this relationship has clearly been crucial in allowing Backhand Theatre to redevelop their work. Linzey explains how Edinburgh provides an unrivalled opportunity to network. “A lot of people underestimate how much networking can be done at Edinburgh and in terms of showcasing work there is nothing better. You won’t find the same atmosphere anywhere else and it is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the theatre year.”
The Edinburgh Festival is clearly highly valued by Backhand Theatre as an opportunity to showcase their work and forge important relationships. Despite this, the daring aerial stunts which make their productions so unique would not happen without funding. The Arts Council Grant awarded to Backhand Theatre has allowed the company to invest in circus and aerial gear, allowing their innovative and visually breath-taking work to continue.
Backhand Theatre may be a young company, but the quality of their 2012 Edinburgh season does not reflect this; their work suggests experience and a true understanding of their audience. It is certainly unusual to see children’s theatre produced alongside an unnerving interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe, but this highlights the diverse material Backhand Theatre are capable of producing. The passion they have for their art shines through in their ability to learn the new circus skills that make this company so unique; the audience are not the only ones taken on a remarkable journey.
Image credit: Backhand Theatre