Arthropoda – MANIPULATE Festival 2023

Written, Direction and Co-Production Design by Sarah Holmes

Dramaturge by Clive Andrews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The most devastating traps begin in benign, even pleasant ways. For Daisy, the encircling barrier forming her entrapment comes in the form of one of our most naïve traditions: love at first sight.

Well, perhaps not as severe as this, but upon (quite literally) bumping into Callum whilst the pair frantically search for the airport gates, there’s an undeniable spark between the clumsy pair – confirmed by the live audio cues telling as much of the story as the aerial feats. It’s almost nauseating, the charm Arthropoda exudes from the onset: taking the opportunity to not miss out on this charming woman he sees before him, Callum hands Daisy his phone number – the two parting their separate ways.

But striking up a Transatlantic relationship, Callum makes the bold move of inviting the Maine-living Daisy to Scotland. And all too familiarly, it starts with a blaze of passion, enjoyment, and affection. But it steadily begins to stagnate and distort into something more troubling. Trivial things. Little aggravations, annoyances, and comments. Building into an acrimonious relationship in which Daisy struggles to see the dangers surrounding her with Calum, an altogether sweet, thoughtful man whose admittance to possessing anger-management issues seems like a genuine move to understanding his demons.

Written and directed by Sarah Holmes (who also co-designed the production), Scottish-based Paper Doll Militia makes its world-premiere debut of Arthropoda, an amalgam of circus artistry, aerial feats, storytelling, and performance elements to craft together a revoltingly familiar story, one which rings through the audience, of the power dynamics and psychological pitfalls of relationships and systemic sexism.

Throughout the tale, as the pair’s relationship grows and worsens, the screens behind the ever-present and oft-utilised Cry Wheels illuminate with a nostalgic glow, and Ruff reverts to a younger Daisy who cheerfully regales the audience with her tales of the infamous Boston Lobster captures. They are jovial and playful, but when diving into the beautiful, if slightly superficial, elements of realisation within the story, Ruff’s stoic and vulnerable performance manages to navigate the troubled waters and possess clarity within the emotionally torrential waters.

It’s a fitting allegory, a creature of remarkable intelligence incapable of spotting the most obvious, and some might argue the easiest of traps to escape. But grimly, and accurately in the case of Daisy, we’re so driven to push forward and refute help or admit fault, to fix, that we fail to recognise the safest and easiest route out of this discomfort and danger is merely to turn around and leave.

And the exit is right there, hanging above in the corded ropes of the enlarged fishing nets dangling. But everything within Holmes and co-designer Ingrid Scholes’ three-dimensional set (using the depth of the Traverse well) has a purpose within the metaphorical narrative and physicality of it all. Where the overhanging nets, wires and nautical themes (emboldened by George Tarbuck’s lighting) all play a part in Ruff and Partridge’s circus feats, they are initially freeing. But soon contort the liberty offered with aerial performance into contraction, a controlling force which hinders Ruff and becomes tremendously effective in reflecting the journey the audience has witnessed.

Beyond the netting, just out of reach is the much-welcomed presence of the live musical direction from musician Bado Reti, and fellow musician Joseph Weisberg. Their omnipotent presence never infiltrates the staging, but their composition and jazz infusion ripples through the storytelling elements: waves of anguish which be and flow with Callum’s temper, or a quickening anxious heartbeat for Daisy – carrying the audience’s very own trepidations.

There are shortcut elements to the relationship within the script, but there’s a genuine spark of intimacy within Ruff and Partridge’s performance and dimensions of, dare we say, understanding Partidge’s aggressions earlier in the script – elements of inherent trauma, financial strains, and mental anxieties all help to flesh out the role and demonstrate the guises of misogynistic violence in their less boisterous manners. Holme’s writing treads a vital and difficult tightrope, ensuring a representation respective to those who have experienced abusive relationships while offering dimension to the characters.

Paper Doll Militia’s challenging piece has rich intentions in unfurling the psychology of it all: it’s a complex issue, the dynamics of relationships and the decisions to support partners with violent emotions or dark eruptions – and it achieves a balanced and insightful outlook. The aerial performances are tight, though don’t re-shape the genre, and are relevant to the storytelling rather than aiming for outright spectacle. Arthropoda makes a significant impact against the systemic issues of sexism, a piece to be proud of, which stokes adrenaline and the nightmarish anxieties of relationships.

Adrenaline Stoking with Rich Intentions

Arthropoda runs at The Traverse Theatre until February 4th. Tickets begin from £15/£13 (con) and may be obtained here.

Further information relating to Paper Doll Militia’s Arthropoda may be obtained on their website.


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