‘The Lives of the High-Rise Saints’ (Summerhall: 10 – 12 Oct ’13)

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Image by pawlowicz.art.pl

“Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated 

The Lives of The High-Rise Saints brings a wide range of disciplines to the Summerhall stage. This one woman puppetry show from Agata Kucinska reaches into the reject pile of society to examine the inner strength that people can find to get through their lives.

Many of the visuals are slightly twisted away from the norm, and the inventiveness behind the design is a delight to see. The performance is a technical tour de force that uses everything from very small rod puppets through to larger human-arm puppets, and even Kucinska donning a mask and puppet limbs to physically take on one of the roles herself.

The story itself, adapted from the work of the same name by Poland’s Lidla Amejko, is both dark and challenging. Anyone who has worked on a DIY project will know that there are always bits left over, and this is the starting point of Ameijko’s work. God’s work took six days and on the seventh day he rested – but on the seventh day the flotsam and jetsam from creation gathered together in a tower block. Trusting only in themselves, they scrape out a living at the fringe of society, a motley band of wastrels, tortured souls, and dubious morals, sharing the tales of their lives with each other and the audience.

On the surface there is little to love about these characters. Rejected by the rest of the world, it is very easy to gloss over them on stage and write them off, but this slow burn of characterisation through individual vignettes is countered by the love and energy Kucinska brings to the stage. You approach each character with trepidation and an almost grotesque curiosity before slowly being pulled into their world.

It’s backed with an inventive live sound-scape that mixes foley effects and music to highlight the sadness of this world. This contrasts well with the small moments of joy each character has to look for to break the monotony of their life with brief bursts of joy and satisfaction.

You need to make that journey to appreciate the small moments that make their lives bearable, but the experience and repetition as the script moves through the roll call left me with a sense of exploitation and horror. This is not an easy performance to watch, but it is layered, thoughtful, and has much to say.

Technically Kucinska has mastered the many facets of puppetry used throughout the show, but with the grotesque nature of the characterisation it becomes hard to connect with the characters. This is not aided by the tone, which is almost oppressive in its darkness; while this accurately reflects the world the characters inhabit, it inhibits investment in their plight and results in the show failing to realise its potential to truly captivate the audience’s attention. Dark can work if enough empathy can be created, but the various elements of the show never quite clicked together, resulting in a somewhat disjointed experience.

Everyone in life is dealt some rubbish cards and the occupants of the tower block know just how weak their cards are but they make the best of the trying circumstances and show a great resilience of spirit in the face of depression and hostility. There is a lesson in there for all of us.