The silent Dragon

An international collaboration is overcoming the language barrier by using no words at all. Susan Mansfield attends rehearsals to see the result

Scott Miller as Tommy in Dragon

The dragon is an enormous coil of plastic, emerging from a red wheelie bin like a giant slinky. It takes four actors to manipulate its coils and a fifth wields a bottle of anti-bacterial spray to stand in for the smoke machine. In a few days’ time, all this will be replaced with a beautiful puppet dragon of similar dimensions. But this is theatre: apply some imagination and the coils are convincing enough.

The dragon is the eponymous star of Vox Motus’ new show, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and Tianjin People’s Art Theatre (China). In rehearsals at Glasgow’s Film City, co-directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison and their creative team are getting to grips with one of their biggest challenges to date: telling a complex story without the aid of words. Dragon overcomes the language barrier of international collaboration by dispensing with the need for language altogether.

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“Even though we’ve got an interpreter with us full-time, pretty quickly we got to a stage where we can communicate a lot without needing the interpreter,” says Harrison. “There was a moment in rehearsals where we realised that we’d watched two actors communicating, one who speaks only English and the other only Mandarin, together on stage creating a fluent and beautiful moment. It was a real epiphany.”

The rehearsal room is a meeting place of cultures. Two Chinese performers, Zhang Kai and Tao Yan, and assistant director Guo Yan are spending three months in Scotland working on the show, and there are plans that it will be produced in China in 2014. On stage, the makeshift props are labelled “swings” and “tree” in both languages. The day I visit, everyone is enjoying dumplings made by the Chinese actors to celebrate the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival, an important public holiday in China.

For Vox Motus, who employ innovative design, choreography, puppetry, illusion and multi-media to accomplish their goals (the specific mix depending on the show) working without words feels natural enough. But Dragon is a complex, emotionally nuanced story of a family in the grip of grief. Tommy is 12, and his mother’s death has left him with a grief-stricken father, a sister who ignores him and a friend who has turned into a bully. And then there’s the dragon.

The show has been “written” by playwright Oliver Emanuel, drawing on his own experiences of grief (he lost his mother to cancer when he was 25. “I wasn’t a child, but I was back living at home, and when my mum died I felt quite isolated. I found it difficult to talk to people who hadn’t been through the same thing, and to communicate with the people I cared about, or who cared about me. I felt that, if it was like that for me, and I was an adult and articulate, what would it be like being 12 and having none of that? The play is silent because Tommy can’t talk to the people around him.”

Edmunds, Harrison and Emanuel have been working on Dragon for more than three years. Harrison is just back from a stint as puppet and illusion designer on Sam Mendes’ West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Key to Vox Motus’ work is developing a staging concept alongside the story they want to tell. Inspired by the likes of Robert Lepage and Theatre de Complicite’s Simon McBurney, they say every project requires a different set of techniques.

In the rehearsal room, the devil (and possibly the dragon) is in the detail. Every gesture counts. “You would think that, since it is wordless, the performances would have to be really big, but it’s not like that at all,” says Edmunds. “It’s almost cinematic in its subtlety, because when you take out language this” – she moves a bottle of apple juice six inches along the table – “means something. For the performers it has been a case of reining it in, reining it in.”

When Edmunds and Harrison presented Dragon as a possible idea for a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, they could not have known it was an ideal match for a collaboration the NTS was already considering with theatre-makers in China. As a result, the Vox Motus team found themselves on a two-week research trip to China where they met performers, directors and dragon experts.

“That had a huge impact on the show and the nature of the dragon,” says Harrison. “One of the things which emerged early on is the difference between the Western and Eastern understandings of the dragon. In the West a dragon is often malevolent and the story often ends with a dragon-slaying moment for the hero, but the Eastern dragon is more about balance and wisdom and harmony. Our dragon is a hybrid of both.”

“Everyone has a dragon in Eastern philosophy,” says Oliver Emanuel. “You and your dragon can be out of balance. This was key for me in terms of writing. It wasn’t about fighting a dragon, it was about negotiating a dragon, which is a more complex and interesting thing, about a boy conquering and dealing with his own fears and difficulties.”

He says Vox Motus challenged him to let his imagination run riot. “They said: write something impossible and let us figure it out, and I did. There are scenes set on rooftops, and flying through the air, I wrote a swimming pool, thinking ‘Jamie’s never going to be able to do that’, and of course he has solved that problem.”

I get a snapshot of the Vox Motus theatrical toolkit when stage manager David Sneddon sits the cast down for a health and safety briefing. Everyone is advised to be aware of a long list of potential dangers from trip hazards and the smoke machine to a cigarette lighter and a carnation being eaten. There will be smoke, Harrison says, but no fire – it would have burned half the budget. What there is instead is a closely guarded secret.

A founding principle of Vox Motus is that in the theatre, the imagination can be transformative. “You don’t suspend your disbelief watching a film or listening to the radio,” says Edmunds. “In literature this chair can be described as a beautiful chair, on film it can be filmed very nicely, but in theatre it could be an army boat, or a gun, or a throne.” “A chair can become a seagull and fly away,” takes up Harrison. “Or a shed can become an ocean and have somebody sailing across it.”

Working with NTS has enabled them to bring on board a broad circle of collaborators, including puppet engineer Guy Bishop, and composer Tim Phillips, who has worked on a range of film and TV projects including Shameless, and who recorded live with an orchestra to create an “epic” soundtrack.

The most nail-biting moments happen in the technical rehearsals when all of these elements will be brought together for the first time. “A lot of people think technical rehearsal are really boring, but we love them,” says Edmunds. “That’s where we make the show. It’s amazing seeing the whole visual thing come together.

“But if you’re working very technically, putting demands on your creative team in terms of sound and lighting and music and design, there is a terrifying moment when you bring all those things together finally and find out if it’s going to work,” adds a grim-faced Harrison. “But we’re excited. We’re hopeful. A few sleepless nights focus the mind.”

Dragon is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 11-19 October, then tours to Eden Court, Inverness, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and The Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford. www.nationaltheatrescotland.comThe production is suitable for age nine and over