From my East London living room I can hear the usual city sounds, cars, sirens, dog owners not picking up their dog’s poo. But then, thankfully, I put on my headphones (noise cancelling of course) and I am transported into an idyllic land. Birds are tweeting, water is gushing and the shamisen (a Japanese string instrument– yes, I looked this up) is playing.
Originally created as a touring production Extant Theatre adapted Flight Paths for our “new normal”. The show was filmed on stage last year and has now been broken up into four different sections to make it the interactive journey we see online. I choose a direction to travel in using the arrows on my keyboard and subsequently reach one of the sections.
First I learn about The Goze, blind women who travelled Japan telling stories and sharing music to make a living. It’s incredibly interesting. We learn about them from an animated Goze woman, voiced by Aya Nakamura who acts as our guide, storyteller and audio describer. There’s something I find extremely relaxing about listening to a story; Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter certainly set a high precedent but Nakamura’s narration is maybe equally calming and nostalgic.
In the non-animated action Sarah Houbolt and Amelia Cavallo, as themselves, give a beautiful performance. It is a mixture of physical theatre, comedy and mesmerising aerial routines using silks. What I find so clever is how they embed the audio description into the script as they describe to each other how to do the various maneuvers on their silks. (‘Manoeuvres’ makes it sound rigid and heavy, they both looked like they were flying, they were so graceful, I just don’t know the correct terminology so I’m going with manoeuvres.)
Cavallo and Houbolt have large water bottles from which the spirits of two blind musicians, Takashi Kikuchi who plays the viola and Victoria Oruwari a soprano singer, appear (on video). I enjoy this abstract element to the piece and the beautiful sound of their music makes the whole experience quite ethereal.
The piece cleverly links together the Goze with the contemporary performers. The struggles and discriminations Cavallo describes as a blind person trying to get a visa to remain in the UK somewhat parallels the struggles of the Goze women. Similarly Kikuchi and Oruwari speak from the heart about their experiences of being blind, making for an emotional and educational piece.
Due to the different sections the piece can sometimes feel disjointed. I like the idea of having the audience choose which direction we take but personally I would have rather known which way would lead me in the correct order as there was a lot of information to learn so I needed all the clarity possible. That being said the other interactive aspects of it such as choosing the fate of Cavallo and Houbolt much like an audience would have decided the fate of the Goze women is really effective.
Flight Paths is like nothing I’ve ever seen, making me realise the lack of representation in mainstream theatre for the partially sighted –not to mention for numerous other protected characteristics but that’s a rant for another time. The piece shows how easy it is to cater both for a visually impaired audience and performer without it even necessarily being obvious you are doing so.
Theatre as we knew it is pretty much on hold right now. We should take this time to make changes to the mainstream theatre industry, giving more space to the voices less heard, so that when it starts up again theatre looks (and sounds) very different.
Flight Paths is currently online to watch for free. For more information see the Flight Paths website.