“In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.’´ Babel-17
This review exists in a quantum nexus. The reader will determine how it is read. It exists, for a certain definition of existence, but what that factuality means is fluid. It could be seen as review, critique, or reflection and it could be seen as all of these at once. The Motion of Light in Water is a play inspired by the life and work of Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker. It is an entertainment, a celebration, a meditation, and a message all at once. The production is smart, media literate, and a little bit sexy. It is all of this at once.
It is a science fiction story. Taking inspiration from the novel Babel-17, by Delany, there is a language that can change people on both a societal and individual level. This eponymous language is understood by Captain Rydra who brings together a crew that she chose herself to go on a mission to understand and stop this potentially damaging language. Examples of the Babel-17 linguistic paradigm are lack of personal pronouns, which means a distancing from others and self which questions morality because ‘do unto others’ makes no sense when there are no others to do things nor self to have things done to, and a precision which excludes certain behaviours classifying them as abhorrent, inadvertently making rebels and criminals of those the universe relies on. Babel-17 is so specific that things exist through the ability to name them, without a word to describe a thing that thing doesn’t exist.
This production is vibrant and intelligent. Jacinta Yelland is perfectly cast as Rydra, the scifi action hero. A cross between Ripley (from the Alien franchise) and Leeloo (The Fifth Element), Yelland brings both mental and physical agility to the role and clearly enjoys the character and the script. This character uses her physical theatre training without bringing attention to itself. Yes, she can perform acrobatic feats, what of it? She also has some heavy exposition duties and this is done with the same assured dexterity as the leaps and bounds. Move over Janeway, there’s a new captain on the bridge.
The entire cast handle the conceptually rich dialogue with a dedication and understanding that avoids the ever present trap of science fiction theatre. There is a lot of information that has to be shared, and a world that has to be believed. This is true in all scifi but especially in genre theatre where budgets are different and limitations have to be transcended so we need the cast to be confident and comfortable. The trap is that the cast is either uncomprehending or dismissive of the genre which leads to awkward and hollow text. In this production everyone, cast and crew, work together to create and confidently presents a legitimate science fiction narrative that never speaks down to the audience.
Sometimes, production companies just don’t understand scifi but every member of this ensemble seems to be appreciative of the ideas and the genre. (So much so that there are a few cultural references that are so seamlessly integrated that it didn’t feel like fan service, but it was and thank you.) This play was realised through the cast and the director reading the books of Delany and Hacker and then responding with discussion and improvisation. This continues with the production as the scifi world is made actual through lighting, sound, sets, and jiggery pokery.
The lighting and sound complemented the geometric sterility of the set. The staging references the 60s/70s concepts of scifi, appropriately enough when Delaney was most prolific, through using saturation, clinical colours, precise documentary sounds and electro soundscapes to achieve an alienation which is undermined by the humanity of Rydra and crew.
As a work of science fiction, The Motion of Light in Water is smart, well-produced, and a lot of fun to be challenged by.
Or this: The story is about Chip, a science fiction author who is black and gay. Unfortunately, it is no surprise at all that he is marginalised and victimised. His partner, Marilyn, is a poet: she is also Jewish. She too experiences prejudice. Together they are navigating a world that is cancered by a diseased language that ostracises them. They talk about alternative worlds where the society does not understand hate, a society that lets people love who they will, an advanced society. Through these ideas Chip starts to use fiction; lies to tell the truth.
It is a love story. The relationship between Chip, the name attributed to Samuel R. Delany (if you don’t know his work then welcome to the world of Google) and Marilyn Hacker (Google knows all) played by Laura Maitland is all too human and played with true emotion and connection between the two. While this comes through in the authentic dialogue this connection can also be seen in the small moments when they are just on stage being a couple. The warmth between the two brought us into their very loving world. When the complications start this relationship gets stronger and it is refreshing to see a love story that is about love and not how hard it is to love in adversity, because it’s not. Chip has appetites, which isn’t to say that is in anyway queer as we all have appetites but to satisfy these urges Chip engages in physical relationships that transgress boundaries (plural). Marilyn knows about these adventures and she is accepting as long as it makes him happy. There is an acceptance here and this couple (who briefly become a trio) express sexuality as an extension of their self and not a definition. There are a lot of sexual references in this play but the sex is never separated from the entire being and each touch carries with it forms of the connection mentioned earlier.
There is a lot of darkness here, both thematic and actual. The cast works together naturally so there is a level of comfort between cast members that brings purity to the most salacious of transactions. The point here is that the actions of a person are interpreted by the viewer. Chip has sex with men in alley ways. This sex is seen as a matter-of-fact. It happens. The redefinition of this is witnessed when Chip is confronted by a psychologist who sees Chips activities as psychologically damaging to him whereas Chip sees it as a necessary release and a moment of intimacy. One viewer calls it damaging, the other says it is good.
Through minimal staging, a few chairs, a couple of pylons, the set is fully realised by the commitment of the cast as we go from the dark streets, to apartments, with occasional bus rides in between. This staging allows for scenes that happen outside of the set and in an other place. Here the characters can reflect and interact with concepts and have it seem as natural as an apartment.
As the actors explore language and love, the sound and lighting support them without ever drawing attention away. After repeated shows that have clever-clever stage craft it is refreshing to see a subtle approach that allows the human story to be told and creates an intimate space with the actors to consider the content and the message of the text.
There are many ways to see The Motion of Light in Water, it could be seen as scifi theatre, modernist drama, or staged thought experiment. It is an engaging, thought-provoking, and sensitive production and the most rewarding I have seen in a long time. However you see it, it should be seen.