Othniel Smith discusses the main event of the the Hijinx Unity Festival 2015, a thought-provoking visual arts performance entitled Extension.
The unofficial support act to Cirque Inextremiste on the first of their two nights at the Wales Millennium Centre is Amelia Cavallo, performing on (or, more precisely, near) the Glanfa stage in the venue’s cavernous but welcoming foyer. One of the stars of Taking Flight’s 2015 open-air tour of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, here she performs songs from her show I Breathe, reflecting on her visual impairment, accompanying herself on guitar and accordion. As well as an excellent musical theatre contralto, she also displays her skills on the trapeze. One lyric suggests that she would like to be viewed as inspiring because of rather than despite her disability.
The message that difference is to be celebrated is at the heart of the Hijinx Unity Festival, and is entertainingly demonstrated in the main event, Extension.
On entering the sold-out Weston Studio, we find ourselves in a builder’s yard. The customary announcements (‘no smoking, no flash photography’) are playfully riffed upon (‘no sexual intercourse, no emotion…’).
As the performance begins, we see that one worker is asleep in his wheelchair (maybe it’s break-time, maybe not). His two work colleagues gently remove him from his wheelchair and place his legs in a rubbish-bin, cruelly stranding him.
He struggles to reach his chair, which has been placed at the top of an improvised see-saw, constructed from the planks and gas-canisters which litter the site. He is unsuccessful, however, and his workmates mock his immobility, using him as a swing-ball pole, and encouraging the audience to bombard him with pellets – we have been thoughtfully provided with pea-shooters and polystyrene projectiles.
Eventually making his escape, he returns, ready to exact vengeance. His weapon: – a mini mechanical digger. His adeptness at operating this gives him the whip hand, more than compensating for his disability, making him – potentially – a deadly weapon.
Thus the narrative unfolds – the bullied worker takes his revenge, constructing intricate arrangements of wood and metal which leave his compatriots precariously balanced several metres in the air, performing breath-taking acrobatics as they alternately assist and hinder one another in their attempts to avoid disaster.
This is not a dark tale, however. The co-workers seem to take the unfolding health and safety nightmare in their stride, apparently keener on getting hold of their lunchtime beers than reaching the ground in one piece.
Presently, thoughts of retribution are forgotten as the trio collaborate in celebration of their collective talents. Confetti is periodically thrown; continued pea-shooting is encouraged; a woman (possible pre-prepared) is plucked from the audience, and subjected to some aerial wooing.
Director Yann Ecauvre, working with fellow performers Jack Vergier and Julien Michenaud, weaves an optimistic tale of victimisation followed by reconciliation. If Extension falls slightly short of being heart-stoppingly spectacular, it is only because, despite the obvious fragility of the jerry-built constructions on which the trio disport themselves, their facility and good humour are such that one never feels that anyone is truly in jeopardy (other than the unfortunate audience-member who, on the night I attended, got in the way of a stray tennis-ball).
The piece ends on a tableau which suggests that the paraplegic performer in his digger has evolved into a fusion of man and machine – a note of defiant triumphalism.
Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, 3rd-4th July, 2015
(Image credits: Solene Mossard)