Published in The Times, Wednesday April 8 2015
Kai Fischer’s brief, beautiful piece of immersive theatre brings together two seemingly disparate stories. The more familiar tale is that of the first manned flight into space by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Fischer places this alongside personal accounts of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
In different hands this combination might have appeared contrived, but by maintaining a tight focus on the first-person point of view, the Glasgow-based director and designer achieves a subjective, at times quietly devastating portrait of human courage in adversity.
It helps that these characters’ voices are literally going on inside our heads. Performed live, by three actors and a pair of musicians seated on stage, the dialogue, music and soundscape (created by Matt Padden) come together in our ears through headphones, resulting in the kind of intimate relationship that is normally only achievable in radio drama.
The ensemble — actors Ryan Gerald, Mercy Ojelade and Adura Onashile and musicians Tyler Collins and Gameli Tordzro — are excellent, whether switching between a multitude of roles or blending and overlapping sounds to create the haunting atmosphere.
Although the production for the National Theatre of Scotland is deceptively spare, with no set to speak of and the performers appearing in their everyday clothes, the action builds to a couple of impressive visual set-pieces, played out against a backdrop of vivid, almost three-dimensional video footage of the Earth receding into space or waves rising and crashing back down in a storm at sea.
On one level the piece impresses as a seamless technical presentation. Yet Fischer’s exploration of lonely human determination is at its most affecting in moments of quiet reflection, such as the scene in which Gagarin briefly loses contact with ground control or the poignant phonecall from one refugee to her father, in which what is left unsaid is more eloquent than the few words they exchange.