The Paper Architect by Davy and Kristin McGuire, funded by the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust and co-produced by the Barbican with Create London, is a show unlike any other, showing us the power of small things in the most innovative, delicate and evocative ways. A unique combination of paper-craft, animation, projection and performance, the piece brings to life the private world of a lonely old man, his longings, fantasies and regrets.
Before the show starts, we are asked to go to the side of the building and look in through the glass. We see neighbourhoods constructed of white paper – wind-blown trees, the moon amidst the clouds, the flight of birds, houses through which we catch glimpses of others' lives – a couple embracing, a woman having a shower...
The show does the exact opposite of what most theatre productions do – it scales things down to miniature, and makes us focus on the most tiny details that illuminate the innermost dreams and the rich emotional life of the central character. In theory, this may sound almost impossible to pull off with an audience sitting outside the world of the piece, but this has to be seen to be believed.
We enter a room filled with delicate paper models of houses and gardens, tiny, flickering streetlamps and intricate, filigree-like trees, all white. At the back, there is a panel of larger paper trees, like a kind of Eden, with a lake and a tree-house with a ramp among the branches. In front, an old man dozes in an armchair.
The moment he wakes up, we connect to a world of loneliness and regret – a wonderful performance by John Cording. He speaks very softly, to himself, in snatches of phrases, but we hear everything and get everything.
The sound design is equally subtle and effective: the outside world makes its presence felt in the sound of traffic, distant in perspective, a motorcycle being revved up outside... And then an eviction notice is dropped through the door. We see the old man's tears as he puts on a record. A cut-out of a woman falls out of an envelope. He puts it onto the playing record and she begins to dance.
As he packs up his paper world, which is as fragile as his dreams, the old man decides to play out his wistful fantasies and memories one last time. This is the core of the show and the fluidity with which paper seems to turn into animation is beautiful, as is the incredible attention to detail.
The old man places the cut-out of the woman behind the panel at the back and a tiny silhouette of her comes to life, as if the cut-out itself has started moving. She lives an idyllic but isolated existence in a tree house in the wilderness. The old man puts a cut-out of a man and a tent into the frame. The man pursues her silently, but catches a bird instead and puts it in a cage. These tiny silhouettes communicate a world of emotion – the male figure's tentative body language, the slowing of his footsteps when he approaches the woman, the dropping of his head and shoulders when he gives up, the bird beating its wings in vain against the bars of its cage, ripples in the water… The old man catches a butterfly behind the screen and brings it into the room; he puts it into a jar, where it flutters, glowing orange until it is released behind the screen again. The woman wants to be found; but she will not be caged and the young man loses her at the end, just as the old man is about to lose his home.
The lighting is subtle and picks out different details for us at different times – for example, at the end, we see that there is a full-sized cage hanging from the ceiling of the old man's room.
If one had to be picky, the few lines the old man says seem to be obvious signposts for our benefit. They are played with truth and feeling, but the piece might still communicate well without them. Since there is a writer attached to the piece, this could have been worked on for more subtext and more sophistication in the storytelling. But the script is not the important thing here, and we enter the old man's fantasy world with a sense of wonder and lose ourselves in it.
After the show, we are invited to take a closer look at the set and we discover yet more things we have not seen before – a tiny skeleton sitting on a shelf, another skeleton seen through a gravestone in a boxed graveyard, cabinets filled with tiny paper crockery, paper birds made out of eviction notices, another tiny cage, brown paper butterflies on brown paper walls…
All in all, this is a piece that speaks to our imagination and challenges our notions what theatre can be. A very inspiring forty-five minutes.