In the programme notes for Told by an Idiot’s latest eye-poppingly garish and energetic prodution, the company’s co-Artistic Director describes how the Trinidadian Carnival evolved from mixing French Mardi Gras with the fury that newly freed slaves felt for the white Colonialists.
The dancers would pick on their former rulers in small groups, intimidating and humiliating them whilst always entertaining the crowd who had come to watch.
By the time the audience were taking their seats at the Sheffield Crucible (and being harrassed by policemen with large prosthetic noses in the process), most of them had recently had an experience of the Trinidadian custom of making rich British men feel uncomfortable – just an hour beforehand in fact. But in The Evocation of Papa Mas, there was no Peter Crouch to come to the rescue. The spirits of the carnival were firmly in charge.
The staging, costumes, masks, movements and songs in Papa Mas – the name for the mythical spirit of the carnival – combine to create a hyperactive surrealist cartoon, telling the story of white plantation owner Mr. Walker.
When his daughter falls in love with a black street beggar, he kills the beggar, who then haunts Mr. Walker from the underworld until he kills his daughter too. In the underworld, the daughter and the beggar are wed, and together they haunt Mr. Walker until he commits suicide, and eventually confronts his real self in the underworld and becomes the spirit of the carnival – Papa Mas.
Despite an on-stage band, Papa Mas is primarily a visual experience. The wide-open acoustics of the Crucible can be unforgiving to all but the strongest singers, and sometimes it is hard to make out exactly what is being sung, but this story needs no words, presented as it is in a series of spectacular set-pieces, ranging from the spurned suitor magically trapped in a giant Jack Daniels bottle to the numerous entrances and exits via a cunningly bottomless coffin-carriage.
Adding to the carnival feel are the huge number of dancers on stage at key points, due largely to Told by an Idiot’s collaboration with community theatre projects, meaning that each theatre Papa Mas is playing in has a supporting cast drawn from local performers.
The closing number is exhilarating, as the already packed stage becomes home to a pair of giant dancing carnival dolls and a huge red-eyed disembodied zombie-head. More than anything, it all feels uncannily like a West Indian version of an Iron Maiden encore.
The violent nature of the story is both accentuated and transformed by the cartoon-world treatment, with the presentation receiving yelps of appreciation from the children in the audience whilst the more sinister overtones were directed at the older spectators. In this way, Papa Mas works on the same level that cartoons have traditionally worked – the extreme violence of the world of cartoons being a perfect aesthetic for Told by an Idiot to exploit for their carnival tales.
Despite the meticulous design, the show still had a rough-and-ready feel to it (possibly due to the constant stream of new cast members), but apart from the odd song lyric lost somewhere in the Crucible airspace, this is largely beneficial to the show’s vibrant atmosphere. It’s a beautiful and ascerbic antidote to theatrical minimalism of any sort – dark and disturbing in places but also a hell of a lot of fun – and not a robot dance in sight!