Last year, the multi-talented Mark Arends’ Something Very Far Away premiered at the Unicorn theatre, wowing audiences with its moving story brought to life through live animation, projection, puppetry and music. Here Arends tells us how the production first came about and why he wasn’t afraid to tackle themes of grief in a story for children.
Something Very Far Away is a play about death. It is about coping with loss and the lengths we’d go to to keep what’s important to us alive. It’s about the universe, space and the stars. It’s about the nature of time, how it passes and how a moment turns into a memory within the blink of an eye. But most of all it is a play about love. How love can make us happy and make us sad. How it can make us feel vulnerable and yet strong enough to take on the laws of physics and possibility.
I first became interested in making theatre for young people whilst working as an actor in Will Tuckett’s production of Marianne Dreams at the Almeida. Being part of such a magical and dark world created for an audience who watched on entranced, wholeheartedly believing in both the story and the characters, was simply better than any other job I’d had before. I was then fortunate enough to work with Katie Mitchell on her productions of Cat In The Hat and Beauty And The Beast at the National Theatre, and having previously worked with Katie on Strindberg’s A Dream Play, it was inspiring to see her attention to detail and rigorous process transferred to the madcap world of Dr Seuss and the magic realism of a classic Villeneuve fairytale.
By this point I had started to write some short stories of my own with the intention of one day turning them into plays, or possibly films, suitable for both children and grown-ups… that tricky balance that the films of Pixar, Aardman and Sylvain Chomet achieve so well.
The story for Something Very Far Away was one that I was personally very attached to and one that I was keen to develop precisely because of its sad and dark subject matter. Previous work I’d done – along with films and books I’d grown up with – taught me not to be afraid of tackling dark themes, especially when working for children. It’s ok for a story to be scary and it’s ok for a story to be sad.
After pitching the story to the National Theatre Studio I was given some time, space and funding to develop the idea of creating an onstage “live animated silent movie” along with an incredible team of collaborators and devisors, including designer Matthew Robins who made the beautiful puppets, which we use in the show. Together we created a few short sequences experimenting with form, playing with filmmaking techniques and finding ways of telling the story clearly without words. Every picture, image or movement made on a stage is interpreted by the audience and contributes in some way to their understanding of a character or narrative. This is always the case, but especially so in a play without dialogue. We had to be very specific and rigorous about the images we created and the music with which we underscored them in order to tell the story clearly.
Those workshops produced the first steps of Something Very Far Away and the foundations of the team that went on to make the show at the Unicorn last summer. It’s a show we’re all very proud of and one that we’re delighted to be performing again this year.
Something Very Far Away plays at the Unicorn from 21 May and is suitable for children aged eight and older.