Originally written for Exeunt
I think The Arrival by Shaun Tan might be one of the most eloquent books ever written.
It has no words.
After seeing Fox Symphony, I came home and re-read (re-looked at?) it straight away. I’m doing it again now. Entirely through illustration, it tells the story of immigration. Not just one story; but so many. Perhaps all stories. How confusing and fantastic and overwhelming and mundane and frightening it can be. Even having made the tiny hop from Ireland to the UK, it gets me.
Fox Symphony falls into a whole category of shows I think I’d like to call It’s-Not-The-Watching-It’s-The-Going-Home-After-And-Then-Probably-The-Following-Week-Too.
There are productions that grab you and shake you, eject you out of the theatre and propel you on a new trajectory for a while, or indeed forever. This isn’t one of those. It’s a piece that lives on quietly inside you for a while, unspooling gently and tugging to remind you that you that you’re not quite from here, are you, but does it matter?
Foxy and Husk’s performance style adds another layer to Fox Symphony, as you can’t always immediately isolate the nationality of the person speaking. Which makes for an interesting game when talking about identity, but is clearly one of the intrinsic purposes of using Foxy as a vehicle for other voices. I work in radio, so I spend a lot of time in an aural environment and it’s my job to be able to identify characteristics from vocal performance; how refreshing to remember that this could not apply less to real people. No one Barbadian is actually performing a Barbadian accent. We do often rely on visual indicators to help us to understand who people are; something which is subverted and questioned in Foxy’s costume choices.
Questioning Britain, and London’s, status as the great melting pot, a variety of delicacies are parcelled out, repackaged in Very British Teacups; the co-opting and absorption of a multitude of cultures. An Irish man blasts the homogeneity of < >’s National Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square… a succession of crowded events in which everyone does just end up “wearing stupid fucking hats” and barely anyone attending really is from the country in question. It’s much easier to find Canadians in the right pub during a hockey game than at a manufactured Canada Day. I once risked the St. Patrick’s Day parade in London, not long after moving here, and quickly realised that it was just a giant version of the much more endearingly shit parades we used to have at home. Plus back home everyone’s pissed by about 3pm and the streets are just filled with beer cans and the occasional confused child roaming free – it’s like a Heineken sponsored apocalypse. My newfound tradition is to tell my coworkers they’re bloody lucky I’m in the office at all as it’s my god-given right to be wasted all day, and then heckle Americans calling it Patty’s Day on Twitter. I know more of God Save the Queen than the Irish national anthem, mind.
Identity’s a funny thing. There’s a good gag at the beginning of the show that simply wouldn’t have worked in America. We each take different bits of being loyal to our community seriously. Heaven help anyone who mocks the Irish language in front of me, but make a joke about Kerry accents or us being heavy drinkers and I’ll probably join in. I never refer to myself as British, but I am a Londoner. My flatmate is Finnish and will always be Finnish and that’s… simply that. One of Foxy’s speakers feels the weight of being away from her country like a loss; I think we sort of wear it merrily on our sleeves, but then that’s the luxury of being white and speaking English fluently. I’m always interested in the order in which people stack their identities; for example I would say I am a woman, then a writer, then a Londoner, then an Irish person. For some people, choosing that order isn’t really an option. I’m going on about myself, but this performance is really about how you view your own identity and what value it holds; that’s the path it leads you down.
In The Arrival, a Man arrives in a different country that looks huge, beautiful, promising, but is plastered in a strange language (Tan created it for the book) and filled with rules that we cannot understand any more than the Man does. The sense of alienation is absolute. Community, at its most basic, is a shared set of understood rules – about language, dress, behaviour, food. Like one of Foxy’s voices, the Man arrives to a completely new set of rules with no familiar points of reference. It’s what happens after that that’s sort of up to us.