Deciphering at the New Diorama

(c) Alex Brenner

Deciphering is billed as “an inter-continental journey to the origins of human creativity” and it certainly lives up to this epic ambition. Inspired by the recent (2021) discovery of geometric symbols dating back c37,500 years on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, this show involved an international collaboration between Curious Directive (a science-led theatre company) and Indonesian artistic collective Bombo (the first artists to be allowed access to these cave networks). More intimately, this piece is also a devised collaboration with real-life mother and daughter Stephanie and Asha Street, who also perform. Which makes sense as the impact of the discovery of these symbols is both universally significant for humans as a species (understanding the roots of our language and creativity) and personal (for the paleo-archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to studying these symbols, that can be found all over this fascinating planet of ours).

Director Jack Lowe brings together a talented ensemble of performers (Amanda Hadingue, Asha Sylvestre, Farah Qadir, Lewis Mackinnon, Mohamad Faizal Abdullah, Sarita Gabony and Stephanie Street), multimedia elements captured by Bombo (Rais Rice and Reza Enem) within the actual cave systems, and brilliant, ambitious set, light and sound design (Zoe Hurwitz (design), Katherine Graham (light), Pete Malkin and Kieran Lucas (sound)), all to great effect. The themes of education, creativity, self-discovery and symbols weave throughout the piece, as we follow the story of Elise, jumping backwards and forwards through time, with the occasional visit to alternative universes to explore the nature of humanity, creativity and self-actualisation. Despite the complexity of the narrative structure the story flows, making intuitive sense as it taps in to our very human ability to carry many different versions of ourselves simultaneously.

(c) Alex Brenner

The magic of this play is that the audacious and inventive technological elements help bring the story to life without detracting from the humanity of the piece. I was transported to a cave system thousands of miles away, thanks to Bombo’s captured soundscape and Theo Whitworth’s delicate and atmospheric composition. There is a natural fluidity to the performances as the ensemble are given space to improvise where needed, making it feel all the more grounded in reality. I left the theatre with the unsettling but wonderful feeling of having been moved to my core by a play, with a sense of connection to a past stretching back many thousands of years. After all, how much do we really understand about the origins of human creativity?

Deciphering is running at the New Diorama Theatre until 2nd October 2021, to find out more or book tickets for this bold and imaginative work of theatre, go here:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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