Flotsam: Silent, floating and fluid theatre

Flotsam. Photo by Kyle Prinsloo

The overarching theme for this year’s festival, entitled ‘Voices and Silence’, plays into the methods of how artists performers go about conveying their messages and ideas to their audiences. The diversity of the festival’s lineup is a testament to the countless ways to how they can go about this. The stark contrast does exist. Storytelling can either be entirely oral or entirely visual, with challenges lying in both methodologies. Physical theatre needs to limit the audience’s scope of interpretation, while comedy needs to keep them engaged and willing to humour the performer (pun intended).

Flotsam, the latest production by Sam Pennington and featuring Artist Ryan Napier, is a definitive example of visual storytelling done right.

On top of that, it is a production not without ambition. “It started out as being a play about mental health, particularly depression, and then it morphed into being about that and also social equality in the South African context,” explained Pennington in an interview. “Depression is often described as an individual problem, as a circuitry going wrong in the brain. But its so much bigger than that. Depression is not caused by problems with yourself, but rather what happens in the world around you, and how they weigh on you as an individual.”

Ryan Napier (pictured), the sole performer in Sam Pennington’s Flotsam. Photo by Kyle Prinsloo

Flotsam, a naval term used to describe items thrown overboard that are then washed up, tells the first-person experiences of a man named Simon. Simon suffers from depression, illustrated by a mundane, daily existence and a hesitancy in enacting a social life. After interacting with a street beggar (an experience which is contrary to his social standing of privilege) he washes up on a deserted island where he is forced to confront his shortcomings. “He’s having to make decisions about how he wants to live his life” Pennington explains. “In the ending, when it peels all the way back from this abstract island, all back into his room, it’s all about that cycle being after. There may be more to come, but he’s gotten through this one. It’s promising, and he can get through others.”

Pennington describes a show which turns out to revel in numerous elements of visual storytelling. Flotsam features no spoken dialogue. Instead, this tale which comprises both real and abstract constructs, is told using a variety of theatrical methods. In the beginning, a major component of the story is told through a mime performance. “I struggle to write dialogue,” Pennington confesses. “It is much easier to write movement. You have to then support it with strong soundscapes and strong visuals.”

To that effect, Flotsam does stray into an arena beyond conventional physical theatre. Napier’s performance is supplemented by puppetry, improvisation, and shadow screen performances. The lighting and music are used for scene and atmosphere construction, with them signalling a change of theatrical pace, setting, and reality. All the while, Pennington’s message is successfully conveyed through the narrative, and to those looking for it. “He likes to think he’s a good person,” Pennington remarks in regards to the story. “But when he’s given the chance to show it, he backs out. That shakes the whole foundation of his belief of who he is, and it sends him on this really abstract journey. He realizes he’s complicit with the tramp being beaten up. Inaction can make you complicit.”

I have detailed in previous reviews that physical theatre, The category into which Pennington would box his production in, runs the risk of being too abstract or interpretive to allow for its audience to have firm grasp on the meaning. In the case of Flotsam, such is not the case. It is visual storytelling at its best. Concise, understandable, compelling. All without speaking one word.

By Sam Spiller

Watch Flotsam at 19:00 on 7 July at the Hangar


Ryan Napier (pictured) operates the puppet of the tramp, a key point of the performance of Flotsam. Photo by Kyle Prinsloo