The world premiere of a powerful piece of theatre featuring puppetry, masks, mime, film and specially composed music is staged in Huddersfield this week. VAL JAVIN reports
FROM the outside it looks like a classic piece of austere northern Victorian architecture.
But step through the door of The Boo, formerly the Liberal Club in Waterfoot, a village deep in the heart of Lancashire’s Rossendale and you are overwhelmed by colour and texture and form.
The Boo is now home to Horse + Bamboo, an innovative theatre company which is working hard to provide not just a base for its own well travelled work but for other community events.
The whole building, spread over several floors, is testament to this company’s extraordinary creativity.
Every nook and cranny overflows with props, puppets and masks.
Sit in a meeting room with company members and it is hard not to be distracted. On pegboards around the wall hangs mask after mask. All are larger than life, blank-eyed but somehow watchful and staring none the less; moustachioed or bearded faces, some grinning, some sombre, woman, old and young, some with golden tresses, others with slightly surreal headgear.
At the heart of the building is a small theatre space where the company’s next production, Veil, is being created.
It is very much a work in progress and the company’s artistic director, Bob Frith, admits that: “In the last weekend I might change the whole way that everything looks.”
And that’s the whole point of this company. Bob is a powerful story-teller who uses his considerable artistic skills – he trained as a painter – to do everything he can to deliver shows with a strong visual message.
The company certainly did that at Christmas when it delighted youngsters at the Lawrence Batley Theatre with its award-winning family show In The Shadow Of Trees.
Its blend of maskwork, powerful visual images and music enchanted youngsters.
From Thursday this week the company returns to Huddersfield and the LBT with a brand new show, which displays all the visual power of In The Shadow Of Trees but which has a far more complex story to tell.
It has taken two years to develop Veil, which deals with the lives of two young women, caught up in the long, violent relationship between Europe and the Middle East.
The result is the most ambitious project in the company’s 30 year history and one which will tour throughout this year, beginning on Thursday with the first of three performances at the LBT.
Horse + Bamboo say that what theatregoers can expect is a complex, intense and multi-layered journey against a backdrop of the historic tension and troubled relationship between Islam and Christianity.
Set in both colonial and present day Iraq, Veil is the story of two women, Salma and Sophie, separated by different cultures but united by deceit, visions and betrayal.
As they search for the truth about their past they begin to discover the devastating secrets hidden behind the veil and a generation of lies buried in the sand.
It promises powerful theatre featuring puppetry, masks, mime, film and specially composed music, delivered by a cast of five, including one Iraqi actor.
Throughout the development process, Bob has kept detailed sketchbooks. “This goes back to the days when I was an art student. These books are full of jottings, sketches, news cuttings, found images, budgets. Anything I feel might be relevant,” he said.
Those influences range from hearing a Radio 3 programme about the Belgian-French singer and songwriter Jacques Brel, to reading the Cairo Trilogy by Egyptian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Naguib Mahfouz and watching a BBC documentary by the film-maker Werner Herzog.
The events of September 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq posed questions for many. Horse + Bamboo Theatre works in an area with many Muslims in its community. Bob needed to know more.
“I started by talking to my friends who were from a Muslim background or were in touch with young Muslims.
“Parminder Kaur, an artist friend, introduced me to a group of Muslim women in Bradford and we talked about issues that were currently in the media.
“The wearing of a scarf or a veil was something many of these young women were committed to and felt passionately about. Halima Cassell, another friend and a wonderful sculptor in clay, gave me a very frank picture of her early life in a Muslim family, stressing an entirely different perspective.
“She also introduced me to Faliha Kadhim, an artist who had fled Baghdad in the 1990s and who went on to give me so much support in writing Veil.
“It was probably meeting and talking with Faliha that, more than anything, made me decide to set this story in Iraq.”
“This research pushed me towards developing a story that touched on the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world and, eventually, the Middle East.
The image being used to promote Veil is a stunning one. It shows a beautiful, veiled woman whose dark eye manages to hint at both strength and secrecy. The veil, is after all, not only the abaya of Iraqi women’s dress, but also describes the lies and secrets of history – as well as the physical screens and cloths of the way the production is staged.
And that perhaps is one of the messages to consider. That all of us perhaps hide things and not everything is as it seems.
The Horse+ Bamboo production of Veil is at the LBT on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (February 28-March 1). Tickets from the box office on 01484 430528.