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Waxbaby Productions’ Of Another World – In Conversation with the Creators

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Of Another World is a theatrical collaboration between award-winning poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad and Waxbaby Productions. It has been designed and co-directed by Caroline Astell-Burt and Kate James-Moore, and uses various forms of live animation including shadow puppetry and projection, as well as carved figures, with narrative delivered entirely in poetic verse.

The play is described thus: ‘Scraping his tired shadow off the platform, newly arrived ‘Jo’ stands underneath railway arches, expectantly. Dressed in an ill-fitting suit he carries his trunk, a five-pound note and a letter of promise from his long-time friend already settled here. Jo waits. Though the longer he waits, the less able he is to step out on his own and so remains waiting.

‘Contending with the suspicion and hostility of a territorial tramp, Jo is trapped between a world too new ahead of him and trains escaping too fast overhead as we witness an immigrant’s gradual loss of self and the notion that perhaps some people just aren’t meant for some places.’

Avaes Mohammed explains: “The themes in my poetry are probably more diverse than my playwriting which deals with contemporary social issues and is inspired by events post 9/11. This is an exciting project because it’s been the first one that I’ve worked on that has brought both poetry and playwriting together.”

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We know the immigrant is coming into a country, but is it the UK?

Avaes: “In a way it could be anywhere really. The host character speaks in English but what we’re getting at isn’t as much about what it’s like to emigrate to the UK but just what it’s like to move to a completely foreign land where everything is so different that they aren’t able to function. That could happen the other way round, from Europe to Africa, if you moved alone and didn’t know their norms and customs. So we are leaving it ambiguous.”

He’s only got a fiver in his pocket and a letter of introduction so he’s almost like a beached whale, totally lost?

Avaes: “Yes, and it’s also a very common truism for a lot of people who come from South Asia, it’s almost myth – ‘I came here with a fiver in my pocket and now I own a factory!’ So it’s a little reference and homage to that truism.”

Caroline Astell-Burt explains how the puppetry and poetry combine: “We are creating the work together and it’s been really inspiring. You don’t really want just puppets talking – there’s more than that. Avaes creates a scenario with words and as operator and narrator there results a symbiotic relationship.”

Avaes agrees: “We are all flowing with the same rhythm but it’s also fair to say that where the words end, the scene continues. That’s the great thing, so much can be done in silence, where words aren’t needed. I haven’t been over-zealous with words.”

Does Jo, the immigrant, aspire to the city lights like Pretty Polly in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera?

“One of his reasons for coming is aspiration and adventure,” Avaes affirms, “but the other reasons are that things are so bad where he was, he needed to get away.”

The play uses shadow theatre, often thought of as an Eastern art.

“Yes, but it’s everywhere,” Caroline expounds, “you just get different versions. People have played with shadows and light in every culture.”

Kate James-Moore adds that “Hamlet’s play-within-a-play has been done in shadow. We’re using it because we want to change the scene.”

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How are the animation and the performer-poet glued together, or are they separate?

“They weave together,” states Caroline. “The way we work is Avaes writes a bit, we work on that with the animation, then a bit more writing and so on. So we all contribute.” Kate agrees, noting “The paper, the suitcase, the rubbish and other scenery has helped us all be on the same page.”

Any play with a wait in it always gets compared to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Avaes: “There’s definitely an element of it. It’s not been done deliberately but the sepia look, playing with light, making worlds with rubbish, and waiting for someone who never turns up is all very Beckett. He is one of my favourite playwrights, I don’t consciously reference his work but sometimes stuff sticks to you. It influences your work without you orchestrating that.”

As soon as you walk into the set you realise it is deliberately very low-tech.

Caroline laughs: “We have two tables and a piece of paper – it’s a bit like a cookery programme!”

Avaes: “One of the reasons it is low-tech is that we wanted to make a show that could fit in the back of a car that we could take anywhere. We’re self-sufficient!”

So, without being a spoiler, what actually happens?

“It allows a probing into the character’s psyche,” says Avaes, “because not much happens, but what does happen is we go on his emotional journey.”

Kate concludes: “This show is about a unique place, so that’s why it’s titled Of Another World.”

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Review (updated 25/5/14)

What is most striking about Of Another World is the heightened emotional content using the simplest of means: a set mainly made of paper and rubbish, puppets, an OHP, a torch, beer cans, plastic bags and other detritus, used dada style.

Avaes Mohammed’s performance is understated, not at all melodramatic but still incredibly poetic and allowing spaces and silence for the animation to take hold.

Jo’s puppet sees him in a dapper suit, initially carrying a suitcase and then trying to eke out a life under the arches with a fellow tramp. His only companion is made of plastic bags that rustle as she moves – there is no pretence. It’s a case of form meets content, right down to an empty takeaway plastic tub or the cans of cheap strong lager.

At one point, Avaes holds Jo’s puppet in the air and it appears to float in space as if flying in a dreamworld, away from the harsh reality of his predicament under the arches in the city’s underbelly.

Jo drinks beer which his host promises will enable him to “forget for a while all your thoughts”. Throughout there is a sense of transience and being lost and isolated – a refugee narrative.

One lovely touch is when Avaes rips up paper (the script?) into small pieces which he throws down onto Jo’s puppet as if flakes of snow, symbolic of the cold and icy conditions he faces.

As one audience member noted in the ensuing Q&A, this is a particularly poignant piece with the current obsession with the subject of immigration in the media. Of Another World is a rich and incredibly inventive work of art that reveals how poetry and puppetry can coexist in a new and unexpected way.

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