In one scene from The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, the second Spoleto production from English theater company 1927, a wide-eyed, frightened woman is pinched between the thumb and forefinger of a massive, shadowy hand and dropped hundreds of feet as her arms rotate up in a stylized pose of terror. The unfortunate lady is a live actor; the hand, as well as the rapidly moving backdrop that illustrates her swift descent, are animated.
It's difficult to describe a 1927 show, which is probably why so many reviewers have grasped for comparisons. The company has shared many a sentence with the likes of Edward Gorey, a writer and illustrator specializing in macabre children and sinister deaths; Fritz Lang, the filmmaker behind the German silent film Metropolis; and even Charles Dickens, with his descriptions of London's despairing corners and their malevolent, intimidating villains. And while these references help put 1927 in some kind of perspective, the truth is that their combination of sweet and evil, of live action and film — all expressed through an aesthetic that owes something to silent films, Edwardian horror, and Grimms' Fairy Tales, among other influences — is unlike anything the theater-going public has seen before.
1927 is the creation of four artists whose prodigious talents fit together so well it's almost eerie. There's animator Paul Barritt, actor Esme Appleton, musician Lillian Henley, and writer/actor/director Suzanne Andrade. Andrade and Barritt's meeting could be straight out of a romantic comedy — or, if they had come to a terrible end instead of forming a wildly successful theater company, the kind of sweetly dark skit that 1927 revels in. As Andrade tells it, "I was performing on the radio on this music program, and Paul was listening. ... I was doing this series of strange poems about a weird old couple who lived by the seaside, and he had met a couple just exactly like what I was explaining." Barritt got in touch with Andrade, and the two began exchanging pictures and CDs. They met in person when Andrade was performing poetry in London and hit it off immediately. Friends of friends and siblings later brought in Appleton and Henley, and 1927 was born.
Charleston audiences may remember the quartet from the 2008 Spoleto Festival, when they performed their first show, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It received rave reviews (including from this paper), almost all of which remarked on the company's shattering uniqueness.
1927's signature is to insert live actors into darkly animated scenes, combining the two so seamlessly that it plays serious tricks with your mind. Barritt's animation is spare, wobbly, and shadowed, evoking despair and ghoulishness. Scenes are in black and white or sepia tones, matching the actors' makeup and costumes. As The Animals and Children Took to the Streets opens, the white-faced Appleton and Andrade appear hanging out of a seedy, animated tenement house, complete with fluttering shutters and perching birds. It manages to be both completely realistic and completely bizarre, feeding the active tension that is at the heart of 1927's artistic viewpoint.
"Our aesthetic developed over several years," Andrade says. "One thing it comes from are old pictures, those old photos that, looking at them, make you feel a bit strange. Like they could come from another world. They could come from the past, but also from the future, and the two are merged together to create something otherworldly."
This sense of displaced time is part of what makes 1927's work so disconcerting. The images evoke ideas of silent movies, or photos from the 1920s, but with a creepy twist. Andrade mentions a line that one reviewer wrote about Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which she loves: "He said it was like walking into your childhood home, and everything's the same, just like you remember, and you can see your family photographs on the walls, but the faces have changed. That's quite eerie, right? I just love that." She and her cohorts are fascinated with this kind of deconstruction and recreation. "We mix up the contemporary and the familiar with nostalgia and the past all the time to create this dreamlike effect. There's this constant mishmash of the past and the present, and that's something that 1927 is very keen on exploring."
While Devil plays out as a series of vignettes, The Animals and Children follows a more linear narrative. The central players in this subversive comedy live in Bayou Mansions, the aforementioned seedy tenement building that is crawling with animated cockroaches and hopeless, mean-spirited tenants. The Bayou was one of the first elements of the show to really come to life, Andrade says. "We had a few characters before we had a story. We had a dystopian, impoverished tenement block, with this miserable deadpan caretaker who operated inside that world and couldn't see any way out, and we thought it would be interesting to add this middle-class do-gooder into that setting. We explored these characters and probably came up with literally 50 different stories."
Andrade and her fellow creators were also influenced by the setting in which they were working, which was a warehouse in East London. "One thing you can't ignore in East London is that ... you can be in a café and just outside the window you see these kids off the estate [public housing] who are just running riot, while inside there's this little girl drinking a babyccino and having this great parenting. We're living next door to each other, but there's no attempt to build bridges or have any kind of communication. ... If people don't start talking, there's going to be some kind of explosion."
That idea made it into their show. The storyline includes a gang of troubled children singing, "We want what you have," who rebel against their parents and the mayor. "This idea of quashed rebellion and of kind of problem children being dealt with in a rather cold and brutal way, those were two things we kept returning to." The show proved to be prescient, as the 2011 London riots started just months after The Animals and Children Took to the Streets premiered, and only blocks away from 1927's warehouse.
So as The Animals and Children is proving to those who still need convincing, 1927 is firmly entrenched in the great tradition of subversive art. Subversion is practically their modus operandi: Not only do they offer up characters who are gritty, perverse, and/or generally set against the accepted establishment, but 1927 productions also subvert genre expectations, style, and form. Are we watching a play on film, or film laid over a play? Or is it something completely new?
Because they so readily defy description, it's difficult to place them in any kind of historical context. 1927 could just as easily be a harbinger of 21st-century theatrical sedition as they could be proof that rebellion in art is timeless and placeless — as easily at home in the past as in the future, just like the company's creations.
But these are unanswerable, theoretical questions. Better to just sit back and enjoy the squalor and immediacy of Bayou Mansions and its gang of pirate children. And if the cockroaches look like they're about to wriggle off the stage, don't worry. They're just part of the atmosphere.