New International Encounter’s Tales from the Sea does what it says on the tin: we get a series of simple tales that have some connection to the sea. We see a brave Norwegian Captain escaping the Japanese airforce in the second world war; the tragic tale of Ella who catches her first fish age four and vanishes into the sea age 18 leaving only her boots behind; and the shy, seasick Danish maths teacher on route to Greenland with her hand-written text books. Interspersed with these whimsical tales we have the ‘real’ jounrey that the cast made from France to Guadaloupe in 2009, complete with snapshots and good-natured squabbling about what actually happened.
The tales are all told in at least three languages, with the characters pretty much miming/doing exactly what the narrator says. This could grate in less skilled hands, but Alex Byrne’s direction never lets it become anything less than charmingly witty. There is a lovely moment when the narrator determinedly says “He slapped himself,” and the poor Captain dutifully slaps himself. There’s a pause, then the narrator deadpans “Twice”, before another narrator cuts in “Lots and lots of times”.
This kind of inventive, imaginative theatre requires a contract between actors and audience: we agree to suspend our disbelief and they agree to really make us believe in the ship, the shore, the lives of these sea-people. NIE kept its side of the bargain, investing each character with charm and personality – as well as doubling and switching seamlessly. However, the Junction’s audience were not playing to the same rules: I have rarely sat in such a rude, loud and downright obnoxious audience. This went beyond schoolchildren’s boisterousness and moved into utter disrespect for the delicate magic being conjured onstage and the gentle stories the cast were trying to tell. We had constant chatter at normal speaking volume, rustling crisp packets, cat-calls… I am all for taking school parties to the theatre, but the onus must fall on the teacher to lay down some ground rules, and then on the teacher and the ushers to remove anyone who is disruptive.
The strong cast soldiered on in the face of noise and blatant disinterest. Their obvious camaraderie and good-humour went a long way to save the evening, but one couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as giggles and sniggers cut through the quiet moments. The piece was utterly charming, but the same cannot be said of some of the audience.