I saw Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’ the night before my interview with George Mann, who wrote, directed and performed in the production, and is the Co-Artistic Director of the company. Mann’s powerful and emotionally engaging piece of work explores the theme of grief through the recently widowed William, who is struggling to accept the death of his wife, Rose. Throughout the play, William finds himself reliving memories from their happy past together. ‘Translunar Paradise’ is unique in that it explores this theme through the medium of mime and physical theatre, using hand-held masks to differentiate between the couple in their youth and in their old age.
I was keen to discover Mann’s inspiration, of which he cited two, saying that “the major one was that my father was dying of lung cancer and then he passed away during the making of the show. I’ve always struggled with grief. I’ve experienced it quite a few times in my life. With my dad, it was another major moment. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I just felt so unprepared for death and grief, and very much alone. So, I wanted to find a way to explore it, to understand it and to express that. And the other inspiration was W. B. Yeats’ poetry. I was reading a poem of his called ‘The Tower’ and in it he describes a place called Translunar Paradise. The poem was written to a character, a really old, bitter man who’s lost the love of his life and hates being old. I was really inspired by both the notion of a translunar paradise and by this character.”
On the topic of dealing with grief, Mann discussed his belief that grief is a concept that our society struggles to acknowledge, often making those dealing with loss feel isolated. However, he feels that this is something that might be changing; “there’s a shift. I think the generation beneath the one I’m in are a bit more in tune with their emotions and their anxieties. I feel like my parents’ and grandparents’ generations denied themselves these emotional journeys. There was a lot of unhealthy relationships and states of being. I think my generation was starting to explore something else and now I feel like there’s another generation which is pushing that ahead even further. There’s a lot of theatre about mental health and emotional subject matter which I think is really important, so I think society is moving in a different direction.”
I wondered if a changed perception of grief was something that Mann wanted audiences to take away from ‘Translunar Paradise’. He responded that “there are loads of things that I would love audiences to get from it, but whether or not that is what everyone gets or not I don’t know. But it seems to have a really strong impact on a lot of people and I’m quite humbled by that.” As I left the theatre, I was certainly overwhelmed with emotion. Aspects of the performance had made me cry but I was still left with an overall sense of positivity, perhaps stemming from a contentedness at seeing such a beautiful love story unfurl. Mann said that the reactions to ‘Translunar Paradise’ varied greatly among people. “Some people sob, and some people come out overwhelmed with love and joy and propose to one another. It’s really unpredictable. Some people don’t like the show as well. With ‘Translunar’, because it’s a non-verbal piece, I’m asking my audience to read everything visually and, of course, there’s a lot going on phonically too but, essentially, in order to grasp the story, you’ve got to read what’s going on visually and some people are more adept at doing that than others. The language that we’ve found is the clearest it could possibly be, but maybe it’s impossible to reach everyone in the same way.”
Given that ‘Translunar Paradise’ is non-verbal, I struggled to understand how Mann was able to communicate his vision to the rest of the company and illustrate to them the style in which he wanted the piece. Mann explained its development process, saying that “it took a lot of time to think about what it was that I wanted to do and how. I’m not someone who works really quickly. I have to let things brew and take time. It’s great because it allows you to really manifest your ideas and it allows you to fail, and to get feedback from different people and audiences. With this piece, before I even got to the rehearsal room I thought a lot about the story. I tried to write it as a play and it failed. And I realised so quickly that words weren’t sufficient for what I wanted to do, so I started thinking about non-verbal forms and I went straight to things like puppetry and mask. I’d seen a scratch performance of Bunraku puppets and it was really moving, and I spent a long time trying to analyse what had moved me so much. Then, once I realised, I knew that it had to be a mask show and I knew that the mask had to be hand-held, like a Bunraku puppet in a sense, because there was a real poetic power to that style and it suited what I wanted to talk about.”
Mann highlighted the importance of the audience in creating his work, saying that many people “forget that it’s the art of the audience and the imagination of the audience that you’re trying to provoke.” It is perhaps this constant awareness of the effect on the audience that makes ‘Translunar Paradise’ have such a powerful impact. I haven’t seen any other of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s plays, so I wondered if they all used mime and physical theatre to provoke such strong reactions. Mann told me that “we set ourselves a mission as a company to make sure it’s completely different each time. People came back after ‘Translunar’, expecting another ‘Translunar’ and they got ‘Ballad of the Burning Star’ which was this raging, drag cabaret, a loud angry piece of political, satirical theatre exploring Israel and Palestine. They just got slapped in the face by a completely different piece which was equally successful in its own way but was so, so different. We want people to not know what’s going to come next and to be excited about that. To be on this journey with us as we’re exploring these different styles and stories, and things that we want to say about our society and our politics and about the world. That’s what we try to do.” After seeing ‘Translunar Paradise’, I certainly want to join them on this journey.
– by Katrina Bennett