I have a confession to make...
Twice a year, at the turn of winter to spring and of summer to autumn I get a little teary-eyed. I’m not sure why, I think something in my body chemistry changes in anticipation of the seasons, which never arrive in Singapore, so my chemistry gets confused and that manifests as awkward emotional outpourings. I mention this because today I took my daughter to see Daryl Beeton’s original production 'A Square World', which left me explaining to the other dads how, for most of the performance, I must have had something in my eye…both eyes actually…because I could barely contain myself. (Warning — contains spoilers).
Daryl is an established theatre maker and practitioner of 20 years standing, as well as the titular founder of Daryl Beeton Productions which, according to the literature, “uses the arts as a powerful tool to advocate and improve the rights of those in our society whose voices go unheard.”
'A Square World' began life in late 2015 supported by the Arts Council England but, thankfully, came to Singapore this weekend as part of Esplanade’s ‘Octoburst!’ children’s festival. It begins in the cozy Theatre Studio with soothing music playing whilst Daryl sits patiently, bearing a big friendly grin, behind a simple white table covered in blocks. There’s no real stage, no us and them, just his space on the floor and our space on the floor, indicated by the cushions scattered around not three feet from his table.
Choreographed to an original score by Arji Manuelpillai the performance begins when the music shifts and we are introduced to three characters, who are merely mouths pasted on malleable orange cubes. The characters speak but not in any language you would recognise, more of a made up babble that gives each a distinct accent and attitude, but which can easily be deciphered by any ears.
Daryl establishes the characters as having a pretty normal routine; get up, go to school, go play, go to bed, get up… So far, so ordinary. But one day, at the playground, one of them has an accident going down the slide and ends up tumbling to the floor (to the genuine gasps of the children who have completely bought into the illusion!). Our two remaining cubes cry for help and Daryl, who thus far has been only puppet master, joins the cast as the adult called upon to assist.
Daryl is reluctant to get involved at first but is left with no choice so eventually comes out from behind the desk revealing that he is, in fact, in a wheelchair. He goes looking for the little lost cube but accidentally runs over him. Feeling guilty he picks cubey up and tries to reassemble him but the best he can do is roll him into a ball.
That night, our characters go to bed as usual hoping it will all be alright in the morning but it’s not; two of them remain cubes but one is now a ball in a square world where he cannot ride the bus, get through the school gates or climb up the slide. This, of course, sets him apart from the others until they realise that a few simple amendments to their square world will make it easier for everyone to join in.
This simple, largely non-verbal tale, told by one man with only a table, a soundtrack and set of blocks packs the emotional punch of a production many times it’s size. Not only did the children understand it, they were spellbound by it and when the chance came at the end for them to join Daryl on stage to create little cubist, round or even triangle friends of their own there was no holding back. Despite his slightly confrontational look; beard, tattoos, flesh tunnel in one ear, septum ring through his nose, his utter sincerity shone through the accoutrements and the kids couldn’t wait to be near him.
Much like his look, Daryl’s performance wasn’t soft or cuddly either; the sinews in his powerful arms bulged and the sweat poured off his brow as he gave everything to these kids in a truly, deeply impactful performance that left me making excuses for my moist eyes.
This was storytelling at it’s absolute purest; minimal cast, language, set and props yet maximum innovation in the use of voice, body, sound and blocks to create compelling characters that engaged adults and children in an emotionally affecting performance. Catch it when you can.