Puffball at The Yard Theatre
24th-28th September 2013
Reviewed by Catherine Love
Caroline Williams is inundated with owl paraphernalia. Bags, cushions, figurines stuffed with stale potpourri. Owl faces peer out from all corners of the stage, eyes wide and unblinking, feathers a variety of colours. All that’s missing is a link to a YouTube video and the hashtag “cute”.
But Williams’ show, unlike the twee figurines that she passes around the audience, only flirts with whimsy. The painted owls are the echoes of a real one, the eponymous Puffball, who Williams looked after and nursed back to health a few years ago. After she and Puffball finally parted company, Williams tells us, friends and family suddenly flooded her with owl themed items, from soft furnishings to pieces of jewellery. The problem is, she doesn’t really want them.
This flurry of well-meaning but unwanted gifts is an apt metaphor for the darker, fast-beating heart of the show, buried beneath the fluffy feathers. At the same time as Puffball was recovering from his injuries, Williams was also trying to get better, although her wounds were not visible ones. Somewhere between the laughter, the figurines and the charmingly simple Microsoft Paint illustrations that are projected onto the back wall of the Yard, Puffball obliquely but painfully conveys the experience of depression. The owl offerings – simplified and infantilising versions of the real thing – can be read in this context as misguided attempts to understand the tangled complexities of mental illness; given with the best of intentions, but unhelpful nonetheless.
This is never quite as simple, however, as a human story seen through that of an anthropomorphised animal. True, Williams offers Puffball an acute, troubled consciousness, evocatively narrating his emotions – from the paralysing terror of falling from the treetop canopy to the numb apathy of his slow recuperation. But this is countered with an insistence that what we are being told is purely the “truth” about owls, an insistence that is reiterated by punctuating the show with a series of “owl facts”, delivered in the forcefully exuberant style of a children’s nature documentary. Williams implicitly acknowledges the absurdity of projecting human experience onto an owl, an acknowledgement that gradually folds the narrative back onto her.
Despite the personal proximity of events, which seeps through in brief but heartbreaking moments of vulnerability, Williams is a warm and involving presence, effortlessly recruiting her audience to take part in some of the show’s sillier sequences. One such scene involves us all standing up and flapping our arms, feeling at once daft and oddly joyous. The participation can at times seem clumsy and slightly detached from the piece as a whole, but perhaps this dislocation is fitting. We are kept at arm’s length from the experience of depression, itself an isolating illness. The most powerful point in the narrative arrives when Puffball and his human carer look at one another, recognising what the other is, but neither can hear the other’s words. In one devastating moment, connection is suggested, attempted and cruelly denied.
So we finally did it. It is a very strange thing to walk into the shoes of a performer who you’ve enjoyed watching closely for so many hours. It was a large leap to make and a scary one, to admit maybe there was a braver way of doing this show, that maybe it would work better if I accepted the piece as being clearly autobiographical.
With thanks to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts and to BAC we were able to have a go at making what we thought would be a better show. With the help of director Alex Swift, whose fresh eyes helped navigate a new approach to the material, Puffball has become the show it seems to have been destined to be. This is my first piece of autobiographical work and I feel really lucky that it has been given this space to become what it now is.
Christopher Brett Bailey (who previously performed the piece) came to see it on Saturday and gave us his important stamp of approval.
I am hugely excited to see where this show can now go. We will develop it for a run at The Yard in September and then back to BAC in the Spring.
Images from the scratch performance of PUFFBALL at BAC in June.
Photographs by Paul Blakemore.
Puffball is afraid.
He doesn’t know where he is. He’d never seen a person before Tuesday morning. His little wing was yanked a little far to the left when he was picked up and it’s sore. He nuzzles it with his beak but the pain is dull and aching and deep and it won’t go away. This place doesn’t smell right. It’s not soft or warm and he’s alone, apart from the people who stare at him.
He doesn’t know what they want or what kind of animals they are. He just knows that he has no power against them. He tried nipping at one of them but his small beak left no mark.
He notices his heart is beating very vast, tat tat tat tat tat tat. It begins to ache. The aching under his wing and the aching in his chest now meet somewhere around his ‘wing’-pit and clasp on to each other and the pain is unbearable- it’s twinging now and he thinks maybe soon he will not be able to breath.
For the first time in Puffball’s very short life he has to acknowledge what death might be and his small brain is surprised by how much of a complete fact it is.
To stop and to not see anymore. To not see.
It is only this that Puffball thinks of now… how odd to not see anymore, the eyes to be blanked out and to not see. How very… very odd.
He closes his eyes and the entire black sky presses onto his skull and he falls into a thick graveyard sleep.