Review: Back to Square One? – meaningful storytelling about connection (and cake)

Erin Harrington reviews Back to Square One?, performed and directed by Anders Falstie-Jensen for The Rebel Alliance Theatre Company, at Little Andromeda, Thursday 25 August 2022.

Truly lo-fi theatre is criminally underrated. The best works are magical and impactful, but you really have to know what you’re doing to conjure something from nothing. Anders Falstie-Jensen’s one man show Back to Square One?, which asks us to reflect on questions of connection and belonging, is a beautiful example of how you can make lovely things in the space between a performer and a receptive audience with not much at all. For us, it’s some sustained attention, some stories, and a handful of chalk.

This heartfelt show, which was designed to be presented by a single actor in many indoor and outdoor settings, to audiences of any size, was originally performed by Falstie-Jensen for his neighbours in his driveway. Here, he welcomes us into Little Andromeda, where the blacks are gone and the lights are up. He speaks to us directly about his time in lockdown in April 2020, during which work (and everything else) had ground to a halt, and he began Skyping daily with his 95-year-old grandmother, Inga, back in Denmark. He switches between playing himself and Inga, and as he shares Inga’s stories (and his own), he slowly fills the floor with drawings, a conceit inspired by his own daughter’s driveway doodlings. And Inga is, frankly, awesome – a gentle yet fiesty Game of Thrones-watching, card-sharping storyteller who has lived a rich and varied life, and who, like many elderly people, has earned the right to ngaf.

Back to Square One? has a playful sense of scale as it layers places, connections, and stories, not least through the increasingly chaotic, colourful chalk world that Falstie-Jensen (with our help) sketches out onto the floor and the walls. The cyclic storytelling, and the way it zooms in and out, shows that big is little, old is young, and ancient is contemporary. Our place in a theatre in New Zealand is overlaid with a sketched floorplan of Inga’s apartment in Denmark, where an ordinary coffee table becomes the globe, and the globe becomes part of  an illustration of Norse mythology about cycles of destruction and rebirth, which then connects us once more as bodies in the playing space, and which then illustrates our connections to people elsewhere in the world, which brings us back to again to Inga, and around and around. It asks: how have we lived, and how do we want to live? What are the things that are important to us? And when we are offered a do-over, as we kind of have been, will we make the same choices?

It’s not just what those stories and questions are, but how we tell and ask them. The childlike aesthetic is inviting and practical in its simplicity. Myth gives us insight into daily life. Serious concerns are couched carefully in the form of a game. And good theatre can take us anywhere, from anywhere.

At the end, Falstie-Jensen offers the work (and the mess) to us as a type of unfinished prompt, and as food for thought. I end up thinking (in ways that are maybe non-compliant with the show’s intentions!) about my very complex, ambivalent feelings towards the frequently contradictory ways we might frame those initial months of the pandemic. It’s a real rabbit hole. But I also think about how in coming years one of our ways of making sense of this all will be to look back at how we have recorded, recreated, and shared our experiences, and to look to the creative work sparked by a global shock and its extraordinary constraints.

Already, barely two and a half years later, that first lockdown feels like a lifetime ago. My own memories of the the real embodied sense of fear and quiet feel muffled. A friend and I are curious about what the natural lifecycle of a play like this is – or any work that responds to immediate circumstances. But that’s not a critique of the play. This full-hearted show’s gentle, warm reminder of the importance of connection, of the quiet power of coffee and cake, of Skype and stories and driveway conversations with others, and of our own capacity to reflect on our values and make different choices, is evergreen.

Back to Square One? runs at Little Andromeda from 25-27 August, and then plays at Circa from 3-11 September as part of the TAHI festival, which showcases solo performance.

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