Odyssey and Translunar Paradise, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

To celebrate their tenth year of creating superb physical theatre, Theatre Ad Infinitum bring two of their early works back to the Fringe. Their one-man Odyssey, touring since 2009, and the 2011 non-speaking Translunar Paradise aren’t a return to form – because the company doesn’t have one. They pride themselves on not replicating style from one piece to the next, so every show is a unique blend of physical theatre and innovative storytelling.

These two productions, whilst with less prominent design elements than their more recent work, are just as different from each other as they are the other shows in the company’s repertoire. But similarly, they are phenomenal examples of physical theatre and storytelling structures.

Odyssey, created by company co-artistic directors Nir Paldi and George Mann, is performed by Mann. There is no set, only subtle lighting and a neutral, contemporary costume. For an hour, he tells of Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

Mann employs a sophisticated physical vocabulary that includes distinctive, contrasting motifs for each of the characters he embodies. There are what feels like dozens of them, and each is assigned a unique vocal and physical trademark. This supports clarity and understanding of the story as well as insight into the character. He draws on common archetypes – the hero, the queen, the old man – that are immediately recognisable. Placement of his centre of gravity, precise gestures and variations in vocal pitch are the core signifiers of the characters. They completely marry with the text; they don’t feel gratuitous or tacked on. Every transition is fluid and organic, as it should be for a performer of such pedigree as Mann, and a show that’s been touring for nearly a decade.

Narratively, the expositional backstory is dense and delivered at at a speed that needs adjusting to. The first few minutes overwhelm with information and names, but once acclimated to Mann’s pace and style, the story is easy to follow. There’s no need for much, if any, knowledge of Homer’s original. The script shows a strong instinct for dramatic tension and variation in rhythm that’s compelling rather than jarring, and Mann’s vibrant energy fills the space without imposing. This is physical storytelling at its best.

Mann’s an enigmatic, elastic performer, and one who fully integrates his physicality with his characters’ emotional lives. This sort of wholistic, transformational work is rarely seen on stage, or on screen, or anywhere. This is reinforced by his performance in Translunar Paradise, where he uses mask and physical theatre to embody an older gentleman grieving the death of his wife.

In Translunar Paradise, Deborah Pugh joins him as his wife’s spirit, or a figment of the man’s imagination. It’s not clear which, but neither does it particularly matter. The episodic montage of memories contrasts their time together and the old man’s mourning. The two performers have a wholly convincing chemistry and are a charming and funny pair. Both show great range in playing young and old, and the masks, in their immovability, draw attention to the rest of their bodies – intimacy, despair, love and anguish are easily discernible, and their precision is flawless.

Though each has its own significant impact, seeing the two productions adjacent to each other gives a glimpse into the company’s range of work, both stylistically and thematically. They showcase Mann’s range as a performer, the exceptional possibilities of physical theatre and Theatre Ad Infinitum’s incomparable body of work.

Odyssey and Translunar Paradise run through 28 August.

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