Review: ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’

Published in 1955, Gabriel García Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings imagines a village’s reaction to an old man with wings appearing in a couple’s courtyard — a man assumed to be an angel. At around 3000 words in length and with only one line of direct speech, transforming it for the theatre is no easy task. But The Wax House’s adaptation of A Very Old Man is a triumph. Under the direction of Laura Day and Chloe St George, Phoebe Stuckes’ and Alex Hartley’s script has a lightness of touch that successfully brings out the humour in Márquez’s text, complemented by an exceptionally talented cast who rise admirably to the challenge of bringing this story to the stage.

Perhaps the main reason that this adaptation is so successful is because it does not attempt a full staging. It is presented as a live radio play, with the cast fully visible. Working with such a suggestive and allusive text as Márquez’s, this is an inspired decision. Rather than being presented with an image of the strange, dishevelled man with ‘dirty and half-plucked’ wings, the audience is left to imagine his appearance. Instead, we see the actors making the noises that make up the play’s sound-world. This only adds to the surreality of Márquez’s magical realism, as a t-shirt becomes a heartbeat, an umbrella the beating wings of an angel. It also gives a lack of specificity and definition to the characters — the small cast all play multiple parts, moving seamlessly between accents and personalities, and these transformations might have gone unnoticed had we not been able to see the actors.

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The cast is well selected; their voices complement each other beautifully, and there isn’t a single weak link in the impressive array of accents. Amongst them, though, Alex Christian really excels in his multiple roles as the Old Man, Father Gonzago, and the sickly child, managing to make each subtly comic in a slightly different way. Ebruba Abel-Unokan’s bass voice stands out in the choruses — these sections would be so haunting without his vocal timbre giving a powerful foundation to the sung refrains.

If I have one criticism of this production, it’s that it is too funny. There’s a darkly harrowing aspect to Márquez’s tale which gets lost amidst the vocal acrobatics. We glimpse it when one of the townsfolk suggests that the angel be promoted to an army general so he can ensure victory in all wars. But this soon gets buried by Christian’s star turn as Father Gonzago, bringing out Márquez’s biting satire of the Church as he proclaims that the man cannot be an angel because he does not understand Latin, ‘the language of God’. Similarly, the townspeople’s horrific treatment of the old man isn’t given the space to have full impact — they throw stones at him and brand him with burning irons, but these moments are passed over relatively swiftly given their significance for the script as a whole. The production would benefit from a greater balance between moments of comedy and tragedy, with the latter given more breathing room so that they stand out from the whirlwind of sound effects.

Overall, though, this adaptation is superb. The Wax House’s raison d’être as a production company is to create high quality accessible theatre, and they have certainly succeeded with this show.

Leah Broad

‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 2nd December. Their level-access is the Saturday matinée in the Schulman Auditorium at The Queen’s College. Tickets can be purchased via their Facebook page.

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