At first, It Folds feels baffling, a blur whose beauty defies close analysis. It blurs the boundaries between life and death, making the ghosts of murdered children walk among their grieving families. It blurs the lines between truth and fiction, drawing on real-life stories of child abduction but muddying their details until they become universal. And most of all, it blurs the categories we place performance into. Its large cast mix dance, physical theatre, matter-of-fact monologues and disconcerting wit into a piece that creates a incense-heady atmosphere of its own.
Irish dance theatre company Junk Ensemble have collaborated with theatre-makers Brokentalkers to create It Folds. It has four directors, a nine-strong cast, and a choir who hymn the story, both on and offstage. These huge massed ranks of voices, seen and unseen, create a kind of surging community around the stories it tells. It’s a sense of community that’s hugely fitting for the subject of child abductions, and the way that they stir up mass hysteria, mass searching, and mass grieving in turn.
Through the ’80s and '90s, it felt as though every summer was marked by the story of a child who’d disappeared, and a tabloid hysteria that simmered on for months or years until its grim conclusion. Why do they hold such fascination? Some writers have put forward the idea that moral panic over child abduction was a backlash against feminism: the moral right's attempt to refocus attention on the nuclear family, with the child at its heart. Before the Catholic church was implicated in child abuse itself, it was a source of stability that emphasised the mother's role in protecting children from the outside world.
The religious imagery of It Folds emphasises the contradictory role of Catholicism in both nurturing and threatening children: an Irish priest briefs altar boys without his shirt on, but it's only when he skips mass that he's abducted. The damage done to parents, under new pressure to protect their children, is explored too. There’s a kind of surreal riff on the way that grieving parents have to perform their relationship for hordes of prurient outsiders: a man and a woman play two halves of a pantomime horse, but they stretch and pull in opposite directions, dragging each other to the floor.
The silliness of a pantomime horse might seem to be at odds with the grim subject matter of child abduction. But the seriousness of the performance is complexified, rather than undermined, by irreverent moments: like a murder ballad strummed on a banjo, or a beautiful hymn sung by a chorus of sheet-wearing ghosts. And the afterlife it imagines might not be sanctioned by any church, but something about its unified beauty lifts us to the heavens, all the same. (AS)
It Folds was on at Summerhall, 5-28 August http://festival16.summerhall.co.uk/event/it-folds/
More information on Brokentalkers' work http://www.brokentalkers.ie/
More information on Junk Ensemble's work http://www.junkensemble.com/
How ideas of stranger danger have changed the way children play http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8399749.stm
The influence of christianity on child abuse hysteria http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/books/review-we-believe-the-children-on-child-abuse-hysteria-in-the-1980s.html