Unlimited: NCA Small Theatre: Hiraeth

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A collaboration between the UK’s Candoco Dance Company and Armenia’s first integrated theatre company, NCA Small Theatre, Hiraeth tells a story of migration, statelessness and a longing for home. It played at Tramway as part of the Unlimited Festival 15-16 September 2016. Review by Joe Turnbull.

Photograph of a performance of NCA Small Theatre's Hiraeth, a woman lies on a reflective stage, five more performers stand behind her, their heads cocked to one side.

Hiraeth, (c) NCA Small Theatre

Hiraeth is a Welsh word describing a feeling of homesickness, possibly for a homeland that you have never visited. The stateless plight of the Armenian people is often underreported and overlooked in historical terms but seems an apt metaphor for the wider refugee and migrant crisis that currently sees millions without a safe place to call home.

Hiraeth takes you on a sensory journey, with a clear life-cycle arc from birth to death, following a group of six wandering people as they navigate the world in a state of statelessness. The piece opens with some thumping industrial music as one of the performers is wracked with strange convulsions, at times grasping her stomach tenderly. It feels incongruous with what follows; pared back visuals and slow sombre music. Is this is a post-industrial tale of migration?

The set is completely bare, black floor and walls. The only props are a children’s tricycle and a collection of rugs, resembling prayer mats. The rugs become both a crucial signifier and a versatile and malleable device, at turns moving from a place to sleep, rest or pray to an item of clothing or marker of a different character. It seems significant for a presumably stateless group, that the rugs resemble flags. They also represent craft traditions that are passed down from generations; such shared cultural activity can act as a binding force for groups not held together by geography.

The act of laying out the rugs before rolling them up and taking them along the journey becomes something of a cathartic ritual; the rug is like a tiny piece of homeland that you can carry anywhere with you. Similarly, the tricycle hints at a caravan, another marker of a nomadic lifestyle. Its rudimentary childlike appearance contrasts with the occasional burst of thumping electronic sounds, suggesting a certain innocence.

These bursts of music are met with more convulsions from the performers, perhaps the trauma of past experience manifesting itself veraciously and wreaking its way through their physicalities. These frantic episodes are contrasted with long periods of serenity; some performers embody stillness while others move with graceful sweeps. Clearly, it’s not all negative. Being a member of stateless community engenders strong bonds, comradery and shared moments of joy.

But there is a particularly uncomfortable moment when one of the most visibly impaired performers is attempting to pray. Another comes over and tries to physically stop her. When she continues, another performer comes over and also tries to stop her. This continues, until all five of the other performers are physically restraining her. This perhaps alludes to the persecution of the Armenian people and the interrelation between religion and nationalism, speaking to a lack of religious freedom for subjugated groups generally.

The constant moving on and journeying which the group undertake feels ceaseless, a never-ending exodus, which is punctuated but never resolved. Except in death. The piece closes with the group wrapping up one of their own, almost mummifying them with the rugs that have been their constant companions. When migrants and refugees are dying in their thousands on their journeys it feels a poignant end. Hiraeth is a sombre, moving and completely fitting tale for the present day, but one that feels imbued with a sense of the history of struggle for the stateless everywhere.

Please click on this link for more information about NCA (The National Centre of Aesthetics), Small Theatre, Armenia.

This piece was produced in partnership with Exeunt Magazine, a space for experimental, fierce and longform writing about theatre, available for free.