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Big Telly's screen between worlds

Operation Elsewhere brings virtual theatre to front rooms everywhere

Big Telly Operation Elsewhere
Big Telly Operation Elsewhere

Big Telly’s Operation Elsewhere in front rooms everywhere, streamed on YouTube, on Saturday, May 23, and Sunday, May 24

Review by JON Lewis

BIG Telly, from Portstewart, are the longest established theatre company in Northern Ireland. They partnered with Oxford’s Creation Theatre Company, bringing Jane Talbot’s The Faerie Thorn to Blackwell’s Bookshop a couple of years ago. Their artistic director Zoe Seaton has directed for Creation over the years, including this year’s innovative Zoom rethinking of last year’s site-specific production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Now, supported by Creation’s marketing and box office team, Seaton has adapted and directed Talbot’s modern fairy story Operation Elsewhere using the technical wizardry of Zoom to reach audiences as far as Kentucky in the performance I attended in my sitting room.

Just as the computer screen transports the audience at home to the socially-isolated performers and director in real time, so the conceit of the play is that there is a border or screen between the world we live in and the faerie lands of our imagination. This other world, an Elsewhere, depicted on a Tolkienesque map, is where Ireland’s folk gods – Fionn mac Cumhaill, Niamh of the golden hair, Fionn’s daughter-in-law, mad Suibhne (mad Sweeney) – is occasionally visited by humans who are swapped via a magical wormhole, with the gods becoming changelings in our world.

An airport border guard (Cillian Lenahan) comically draws us into a quest where our aim is to return the crow-like Sweeney (Michael Johnston) and the changeling (Rhodri Lewis) back to their worlds. As in Peter Pan, where the audience demonstrates a belief in fairies by performing, so we join in by singing, dancing, making tunnels out of blankets, bringing items to the screen – in my case, a cup of coffee. If we demonstrate a lack of ‘bandwidth’ by underperforming, we are hilariously called out, as I was, writing notes rather than waving my arms in one scene.

The narrator is a mythological Irish ghost figure, the Pooka aka PUKA, (Chris Grant), here a mysterious figure with psychedelic projections on his hands as he weaves his story. We are introduced to a kidnapped bride, Anya (Rosie McClelland), her groom Dave (Keith Singleton) and a Braveheart figure, Scatha (Nicky Harley), who trains us all for battle. We are transported by the magic of the green screens in each of the actor’s homes to Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, to an archetypal Irish pub and a treehouse in a forest.

The show is an enjoyable postmodern mash-up of whimsy, tomfoolery and adventure. Performing in National Mental Health Awareness Week, the impact of this funny, interactive show for audiences craving, and missing, the shared experience of live theatre, is immense.

If small-scale companies like Big Telly and Creation Theatre, whose production of Jonathan Holloway’s version of HG Wells’ The Time Machine will be performed on Zoom from May 27 to June 21, can adapt quickly to our social-distanced lifestyle, what’s stopping our major national and regional theatres and theatre companies from innovating further with this technology and bringing other stories to the computer screen?

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