A match made in heaven for magical tale of the angel who fell to earth
The stage adaptation of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story on Hayle harbour in the summer of 2005 was a watershed for Cornish theatre.
Ostensibly a Kneehigh show, the event marked the moment some of the company's founders sought different directions and led to the formation of WildWorks.
Kneehigh went on to perform in theatres across the UK and the world, while WildWorks forged a reputation for community-based, site-specific extravaganzas. The legacy, therefore, of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, was to create two world-class Cornish companies.
The original idea to adapt Garcia Marquez's story of an angel who comes to earth lay with Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd. And while he and fellow artistic director Emma Rice have led several award-winning productions since, he continued to harbour a desire to revive the Colombian magical realist's haunting tale.
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In March, he will bring A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings back to Cornwall for a brief six-show run in Falmouth. In a collaboration with the award-winning Little Angel Theatre, Mike has swapped the scale of the original production for an intimate retelling through the use of handmade puppets.
Puppetry has become a familiar – some might say overused – device in live theatre over the past few years, from numerous small-scale exponents doing their stuff at the Edinburgh Fringe to the massively popular War Horse. Companies like Handspring, Blind Summit and Little Angel lead the pack today, but Kneehigh – as might be expected – were also manipulating inanimate objects long before it became fashionable. In 2001, their production of Fishboy – based on a Charles Causley poem and directed by Mike Shepherd – was a triumph of the genre.
Mike, who is in Cornwall this week before rejoining Kneehigh's 100-date run of Steptoe & Son, said A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings stayed with him since he first read it.
"To me, the seascape of ruined beauty immediately resonated with Cornwall and that sense of community I know," he said. "I've wanted to do it for ages but until now there hadn't been an opportunity. So it was lovely to return to the simple story."
He explained that the production began life during a a visit to Machiavelli's villa in Tuscany.
"We made it in a week with Joe Wright of Little Angel and his wife, the sitar player Anoushka Shankar. They worked on the music and then we put on a rough show in a tiny chapel at the bottom of the garden. Local farm workers came along with their children and we spit-roasted a piglet and a hare. We did it by candlelight and there were fire-flies buzzing about. It was one of the most magical things that's ever happened to us – and it has stayed magic ever since."
Opening first in London, the fully-formed show prompted a reviewer for The Times to write: "This is a little miracle of a show. In its small but perfectly formed way it is as memorable as anything I've seen this year."
With four puppeteers operating 105 characters, Mike said the level of skill involved was breathtaking.
"All I've done is direct it," he said. "The stars are the puppets. They are unbelievable and create a whole community, which could be Cornwall, could South America, could be anywhere. Largely because of War Horse, there is, quite rightly, a lot of interest in puppetry at the moment. Little Angel's puppets are brilliant – they are weighted in such a way that they almost appear to move on their own.
"And the puppeteers are so multi-skilled. One will be doing the voice for one puppet, while doing the head of another with one hand and the arm for another one, all in different rhythms. It is extraordinary."
Sitting in the kitchen at the barns in Gorran on Cornwall's south coast, where Kneehigh has been based for 30 years, Mike stressed that its latest show – as with all its productions – remains firmly rooted in Cornwall. Garcia Marquez's story has been re-written by Annamaria Murphy of Penzance and the show features a soundtrack by Kneehigh musicians Ian Ross and Benji Bower.
Meanwhile, the company's performers, musicians, writers and technical crews continue their role as ambassador's of Cornish culture. In addition to The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, their schedule continues this year with the tail-end of a 100-date UK tour of Steptoe & Son, The Wild Bride in San Francisco, Midnight's Pumpkin at Battersea Arts Centre, Tristan & Yseult touring the UK and US, and Brief Encounter in Australia and America. Plans are also under way for a new version of The Beggar's Opera and an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's The Amazing Story Of Adolphus Tips.
Tristan & Yseult – an old Cornish love story – will be at the Hall For Cornwall from June 25 to 29. Premiered nine years ago, it has since been seen throughout the UK, US and Australia.
Director Emma Rice said: "I love this production. It is one of those rare shows that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has taken on a life, a universality, that touches and surprises me each time we perform.
"As the story unfolds, I realise there is not one person in the audience who doesn't profoundly recognise something in the situation – to love someone you shouldn't, to betray someone you love, to be betrayed, to be left, to be unloved. It is an epic tale of grand romantic love, but also a tender unravelling of love in all its beautiful and painful forms."
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is at University College Falmouth's Performance Centre from March 5 to 9. For tickets, call 01326-255885.