A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings has been delighting audiences across the UK; having finally caught up with it at Bristol Old Vic, it’s easy to see why. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s slightly off-beat tale of a winged man who is blown out of the sky during a storm is a simple one, but runs much deeper than it appears at first glance. Caged in a chicken run, the old man may or may not be able to perform miracles – including healing the sick – and he may or may not be able to also unleash malevolent revenge upon his captors. Marquez, and this production, keep it nicely ambiguous.
For all of its fairytale timelessness, this exquisite production cleverly modernises the story: what would you do if a strange winged man appeared in your garden overnight? Why, cash in, of course. Soon the whole village is in on it, colluding in the creature’s imprisonment, raking in the cash from tourists and enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. The moral point is not hammered home, in fact, it is done with masterful subtlety. During the interval, satellite dishes appear on the roofs of every tumbledown house and the Wife into whose garden the creature has fallen gets a new dress and hat. The set (Lyndie and Sarah Wright) perfectly captures with slightly claustrophic cosiness of village life, especially when the influx of tourists start causing tensions.
Beautifully scripted by Anna Maria Murphy, the four actors (Sarah Wright, Roger Lade, Avye Leventis and Rachel Leonard) voice every inhabitant of the village with warmth and humour whilst manipulating the puppet cast. What can be said about the puppets? They are, in the cast’s exceptionally skilled hands, quite simply astonishing. Blank wooden faces become extraordinarily lifelike, moving and turning with such artless subtlety that they truly seem alive. The village dog is a particular delight, and of course the Old Man himself is eerily, wonderfully done. His only lines take the form of an other-worldly song which, in Roger Lade’s fine voice, conveys a yearning to be free and rage against his captors. The small boy who strikes up a friendship of sorts with the Old Man is also particularly well captured. I am still pleasantly reeling from just how cleverly animated the puppets were.
Bristol Old Vic’s freezing studio was about half-full of a school party, of 11 or 12 years olds. There is something utterly magical about seeing rows upon rows of spellbound children – any show where a small, wooden old woman puppet can say “Lean closer” and every child does so completely unselfconsciously should be praised to the skies. By turns humorous, moving and enchanting, this is a show not to be missed.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is at Bristol Old Vic until 16 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/veryoldman