Idle Motion’s Borges and I is an intelligent parable about one of literature’s most creative minds, Jorge Louis Borges. A visual feast for those who love books and reading, this physical theatre piece throws down the intellectual gauntlet and challenges the audience to confront its notions of memory and identity. Surprisingly, it remains quite entertaining while doing so. At the New Diorama.
Starting with a projection of someone turning pages in Hermann Hesse’s Fairy Tales, the audience is taken on a journey through Borges’ literary biography, which leads us from his early childhood readings of Kipling through crucial stages of his life, like when he became the director of the Argentinean National Library right through to his death in 1986. Borges, for those who have never come across him or who slept through that one course on South American literature at uni, had a huge influence on the post-modern school of thought and, among many things, concerned himself with the relation of identity, the individual and memory. For him the library as an institution was of endless fascination, and in his writing motives of mazes and endless mirrors feature very prominently. Borges asks what remains of a single man when confronted with the vastness of a potentially unlimited archive of knowledge.
Idle Motion have succeeded in turning Borges’ convoluted philosophic and aesthetic legacy into a compelling piece of theatre without risking audience alienation by becoming too abstract or intellectually bloated. On the contrary, the show refrains from being too cleverly self-referential and manages to reflect beautifully on the disjointedness of the human condition.
To that end, we are introduced to the members of a somewhat dysfunctional book club, who rejoice in reading Margaret Atwood and bicker about Elizabeth Gilbert. These comically well-timed scenes are intercut with dreamlike sequences focusing directly on Borges and his obsession with books. In our digital age, with ebook readers and mobile internet, it is constantly lamented that the pleasures that come with the physical act of reading a book get lost more and more. And yes, there is a certain nostalgia about the way devoted book lovers handle their objects of desire. Some bibliophiles have been known to smell the pages, they stroke the spines or press books to their chest when particularly affected by a passage they have just read. Reading to them is like making love. And, indeed, there is a scene in Borges and I where a young couple brought together by their shared love of books makes love on stage. It’s a beautifully choreographed dance, tender and spell-binding.
The relationship of Nick (Julian Spooner) and Sophie (Sophie Cullen) very loosely mirrors stages of Borges’ life and allows glimpses into his extraordinary mind and philosophy, but also into his direct personal biography. As a man obsessed with reading and writing, it is perhaps most tragic that, from an early age onwards, he started turning blind. A veracious and beautifully simple performance by Sophie Cullen, who plays the young woman befallen by the same fate, takes the audience through the stages of denial and anger towards what Borges called being trapped in a “luminous mist”.
But this show really is an ensemble effort, and what a few of the young performers seem to be lacking in acting experience is more than made up for by the dexterity and diligence of the special effects. And this term can indeed be applied here, because in its style the piece has a rather filmic quality. Between the cover and the back of a book there are hidden worlds and Idle Motion makes these worlds come alive. Books turn into seagulls that land softly on Borges’ (Nicholas Pitt) shoulders or they serve as projection screens for pacing animals. The clever use of light allows for these creatures to climb out of the pages and to manifest themselves in front of our eyes. These visual interludes rarely ever seem gimmicky, but pay tribute to the fragmented narration techniques of post-modernism. Shadow play, puppets or a coat coming to life as a tiger – all this stuns visually while still supporting the basic idea of the piece.
In the beginning the stage is nearly empty, apart from two simple plywood flats and a couple of books arranged neatly against the walls. Throughout the show, the stage fills up with countless pages and haphazardly tipped over stacks of books. And although we have witnessed the journey of every single of these torn out pages, in the end we cannot quite recall how all of these references to words once written and uttered ended up being literally strewn all over the stage or our cultural memory.
All this could have been dull and pretentious in the hands of less capable storytellers. The most astonishing thing about Borges and I is probably that, while telling its story in a very stylised way, it manages to avoid the trap of self-indulgence. It’s not perfect by any means, but has an undeniably captivating charm. I am, however, not entirely convinced that those who aren’t overly fond of books will take the same pleasure in viewing it, but then again an encounter with Borges might be just what they were waiting for.