19 October, Blyth Iona School, HBAF18 By Rosheen FitzGerald
Frenetic birdsong fills the auditorium, at odds with the polished concrete and sculpted blonde wood of the surroundings. A critical mass of attendees are women and girls, who make chirruping connections across the rows. But despite the similar demographic, there’s significantly less pink and tulle in evidence than, in my experience, at a matinee of a straight ballet. Instead I see galaxies, rainbow stripe, sequined kitten ears, chunky turquoise boots – expressions of self that, in an embryotic way, explore femininity further than the first rail to hand on the high street.
We’re amassed to experience Ann-Droid, the genre defying offering from Hungarian duo, BANDART, marrying the technical expertise of Szabolcs Tóth-Zs with the chorographical skills of Katalin Lengyel. Billed as a Pinocchio tale for the 21st Century (side-stepping the creepiness of Coppélia or the dark moralising of Frankenstein’s bride), it’s a multimedia spectacular that challenges the boundaries of theatre as we know it to deliver something enchanting and profoundly relatable.
I’ve crowd sourced my review from the seven, nine and ten year olds I accompanied. The middle child observes, “I could really understand what was going on, even though there were no words. That doesn’t always happen for me.” She’s spot on. It’s no surprise that Lengyel is a linguistics graduate – the semiotics of the piece are explicit without patronising, taking even the youngest child by the hand and leading them through a fantastical world that is both strange and familiar.
At the first we are introduced to the eccentric inventor, his electronic walking frame and neon ball – seemingly self-determined characters in their own right, and a host of emoji-like images that carry through the piece. With the aid of the digital mise-en-scène, he creates Ann-Droid, a neon-lit, robotic wunderkind on quad skates – a stand-in for his deceased daughter, who met her demise as a result of his inattention.
What follows is a riotous romp that sees Ann negotiating earth, sea and sky in a computer-game-like quest for mortality, and her creator journeying through his own grief to heal his heart and be granted a second chance. Along the way there are complex and delightful Rube Goldberg machines; a clunky drone ballet; a crew of wry, pop-eyed, egg laying parrots in primary colours; an anglerfish in need of a lightbulb change; a toadstool love affair; rainbow crystal caves; and a deeply creepy forest of hands in a psychedelic sequence to rival Heffalumps and Woozles.
The latter contains an Easter egg for the grown-ups in the crowd, occurring just when Ann has departed from her garden path. The emotive, grasping, stories-high hands personify perfectly every parent’s nightmare of the big bad world without, snatching at their child’s innocence. The appearance of the sovereign neon ball to save the day is an incarnation of the life lessons, the resilience, we all hope we have sown within our children to protect them when they fly the coop.
It’s easy to focus on Tóth-Zs’ technical feats, and the degree of practice and precision required to coordinate on-stage movements with the projected backdrop. The wonders of Katalin Lengyel’s smart costume, lit up in all its glory, too, are captivating to behold. But the dance nerd in me can’t help but marvel at the spectrum of movement exhibited by Lengyel, the progression from jerky automaton on skates to twirling, flowing, fully-fleshed out human girl. By watching her take possession of her corporeal form, there is hope that she will inspire the girls in the audience, already on that journey, to grab the opportunity to be themselves with both hands and run with it.