Hugh Hughes is a fictional character – a persona created by Hoipolloi Artistic Director Shon Dale-Jones – on stage to tell a fictional story about a real place, but an event that never happened. I think. The truth is, after watching Floating, I’m not entirely sure what’s fictional and what’s not anymore, and I think that’s the point. With several references to a projected Luis Bunuel quote about how dwelling on fiction and our imaginations can transform them into fact, Floating posed a number of questions to its audience, the most important being: were we prepared to step off the island with Hughes and into his make-believe world?
Photo from http://www.pushfestival.ca
Thursday night’s opening performance at the Arts Club was unlike anything I have experienced before. And it truly was a show you experienced, rather than watched. Objects belonging to Hugh’s Nain (Welsh for Grandmother) were passed around the audience, along with a light-up slide box containing a photograph of her, and an Icelandic volcanic rock. An audience member in the front row was given a counter and responsibility for adjusting it and holding it up for the audience to indicate each passing chapter in the story. And in one moment that PuShed (see what I did there) at the very limits of sustained audience discomfort, Hughes invited the audience to get naked with him, pausing the show and implying that it wouldn’t continue until someone took him up on the offer: “I’m not going to lie to you… it’s going to get a bit weird” he promised as the audience laughed nervously and shifted in their seats.
Floating claims to tell the story of a day when the small island of Anglesey broke free from the Welsh mainland and floated away, making it as far as the Arctic before returning to the exact place it started. This fantastical narrative is interwoven with Hughes’ own struggle to leave the island. Though with everything else going on in the show, it’s the story that gets lost. There are moments of finely crafted physical comedy and charming bumbling naivete that almost cross over into clowning, along with quick-witted audience banter as good as any stand-up comedy. Visually beautiful projections are created using a combination of old-school slide projectors and modern digital technology; and a cluttered assortment of props and costumes are used creatively to depict multiple characters and pivotal moments. There is meta-theatre and macro-theatre: Hughes holds up multiple signs and laminated flashcards spotlighting key themes and explains at length the supposed beginning-middle-end structure of the story he is about to tell. The macro comes later: while demonstrating how it felt when the island broke away from the bridge, Hughes and co-performer Sioned Rowlands focus in on the smallest details like colours of the bridge and the water, the sounds of chains clanking and stones falling into the water, and the fraying of ropes. It is a moment both genius in its creativity and hilarious in its clumsiness. But the eclectic and jumbled nature of the show is both its charm and its downfall. There is an interesting story in there – it just has to fight for attention amongst everything else going on.
Speaking to people afterwards, it seems that Floating divided opinion – some liked it, some didn’t, while some knew they had laughed a lot but weren’t quite sure what to make of it. I left certain that I had enjoyed many clever, funny, original and daring moments, but wishing they had all come together to form a more coherent show.