KAI Fischer’s new play tells the stories of those prepared to put everything on the line, from refugees in Morocco to Yuri Gagarin in space, writes Mark Fisher
When Kai Fischer heard the news, the first thing he did was phone work. Thinking on his feet, he told his boss he needed to take the next day off to see his brother. What he had in mind was something more ambitious. The word was out that Hungary had opened its borders to the West. Fischer did not hesitate before getting on the train. That was when he bid farewell to his East German home.
This was the summer of 1989. After taking down the fence along the border with Austria, Hungary effectively paved the way for East Germans such as Fischer to escape to West Germany. “It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall,” chancellor Helmut Kohl would say.
Long since settled in Glasgow, where he came to university, Fischer is now a celebrated set and lighting designer, renowned for his long-standing relationship with Vanishing Point, for which he is an associate artist, and recently much praised for his work on Scottish Opera’s revival of Inês de Castro. In 2013, he received his third nomination for best design in the CATS awards, this time for Entartet, a theatrical installation which he created and directed.
As refugee experiences go, he admits, his flitting from Bitterfeld, a small town north of Leipzig, was “deluxe”.
“I was a pampered refugee within Europe,” he says.
All the same, it made him sensitive to the plight of people across the world who have felt similarly compelled to escape their native land, often at great personal risk.
“I can’t compare my experience to what people have to go through now, but I’ve had the experience of going to refugee camps and having to deal with the Red Cross and of thinking that you may never be able to go back. It’s made me curious and it’s made me very aware of how lucky I was.”
This was one of the twin impulses behind Last Dream (On Earth), his new show for the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s a performance about incredible journeys, be it the life-and-death bid for freedom across the perilous waters between Africa and Europe or the space-race quest that put Yuri Gagarin in orbit. “What links the two stories is risk,” he says. “And the ultimate risk, that you’re prepared to risk your life for what you hope to achieve.”
His own sense of displacement led him on a series of research trips for the show. He went first to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where refugees make frequent arrivals from nearby Tunisia. He also visited a refugee centre in Malta and journeyed to Rabat and Tangier in Morocco. Fascinated by what motivated people, he spoke to those who had made the journey and those who were about to – including some who persisted even after several failed attempts.
“You’re talking to people who are fully aware that what they’re doing could easily cost them their life,” he says. “Often they take the risk not just for themselves but for other people, to help someone back home or to provide a better life for their children.”
With a mass of first-hand accounts to draw on, he chose to focus on one specific journey from Morocco to Spain. “There, you literally get a bunch of people getting together, buying a dinghy and going for it,” he says.
While he was trying to process all this, there was another journey going round in his head, one not as desperate, but no less intrepid. From his communist-era upbringing, he was well versed in the story of Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to orbit the Earth. “Gagarin has always fascinated me,” he says. “The first human being in space, in this capsule, pretty slim chances of survival, but makes it in the end...”
Propelled out of the atmosphere in Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961 and circling the planet once on his 108-minute journey, the cosmonaut became one of the great heroes of the Soviet Union. Not until Neil Armstrong made one great leap for mankind in 1969 did the Americans catch up.
“He was the first person ever to see the curved horizon of the Earth, to see clouds from that perspective and all those images that we now know from NASA’s website,” says Fischer. “It’s very poetic.”
Just as it is difficult to appreciate the risks taken by refugees, so it is hard to comprehend the enormity of Gagarin’s achievement. There was every chance he would go the same way as Laika, the dog that had been triumphantly jettisoned into orbit in 1957 only to die from overheating and panic a few hours into the mission. Nobody had done this before and nobody knew if it would work.
One way to get Gagarin’s journey into perspective is to study the transcripts of his radio conversations with Sergei Korolev, the mastermind behind the rocket programme, at ground control. Fischer has studied them in detail, both the Soviet-era censored versions and the fuller accounts made available more recently. It is these, he says, that give a human scale to the undertaking.
“There are moments when you realise things could have really gone wrong,” he says. “Both were aware that his risks were huge. Even the technical facts are about survival.”
Now, in Last Dream (On Earth), which opens in Glasgow and tours to St Andrews, Paisley, Shetland and Inverness, Fischer has brought both ideas together. The backbone of the piece is an edited version of the Gagarin tapes performed by actors Ryan Gerald, Mercy Ojelade and Adura Onashile. Wrapped around this are accounts from the refugees he met. “It’s about journeys into the unknown and the risks that you are prepared to take to do them,” he says.
The novelty for the audience is that the whole thing is experienced wearing headphones. The music performed live by Ghana’s Gameli Tordzro and Alaska’s Tyler Collins blends with aural pictures created by sound designer Matt Padden. “I’m always keen to allow a space where the audience can create their own pictures,” says Fischer. “Even with set designs, I like to create worlds where people can still imagine things, to leave space for people to make it their own. That’s what I liked about the headphone idea: it can create those audio environments that really take you somewhere, but at the same time it gives you space to make it your own.”
It may seem odd that a set and lighting specialist should go down this route, but he says it started off as a design idea. “The headphones were a way of getting you to feel part of a rocket about to be launched,” he says. “There’s nothing I can put on stage that gets you any closer to it than actually being there, listening to it, the way that the technicians and Gagarin himself would be listening to it. It also presents a sense of isolation – it separates you from the rest of the audience, which is a big part of both stories. The sounds that Matt has been creating are just stunning. You really do feel as though you are taking part in the launch of the space ship.”
• Last Dream (On Earth) is at the Tron, Glasgow, from 1-4 April, and on tour, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
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