Aviatrix – Clever Conceit or Realities of Making Cross Border Theatre?

Free Ramzi Maqdisi! The Palestinian film and theatre-maker is currently being held inside an airless room, with no access to drinking water, at UK Border Control. An insider has told this reporter that despite being held in detention, Ramzi remains in good spirits, as he is subjected to routine security checks. A number of campaigns have already been set up to raise awareness of his situation and funds for his release.

AviatrixNot the first premise you would reach for to tell the story of Hull’s record-breaking pilot Amy Johnson is it? Intrigued by the set up and the visuals depicting a kaleidoscope of clouds recreating what Amy would have seen on her pioneering solo flight, I settled in to watch the last showing of Aviatrix at Kardomah 94.

From the shadows and the voices emanating from behind a grey panel we accept that this is where Ramzi is being held and that, the officious Border Control agent, is just doing her job. The tension is heightened when upon conducting a routine security check of the audience she finds a suitcase, a suitcase belonging to the detained Ramzi, which contains, amongst other items, the script for Aviatrix. He has to convince her and us and Border Control, that he poses no threat and that he is just coming to do a show.

The agent all buttoned up and severe at first, is intrigued by Ramzi’s story and over the course of the piece we see her soften and even warm to her captive. From behind the glass whilst still in shadow, Ramzi shares scripted excerpts from Amy’s story. It is documented that Amy spent a number of days fixing her broken plane with a local engineer, after crash landing in Iraq, despite neither of them being able to speak the other’s language. Ramzi begins to diverts from the Amy story to tell his own in an effort to get his gaoler on side.

Aviatrix in rehearsal Picture: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

Aviatrix in rehearsal Picture: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments

In between these moments of disembodied narrative there is music, discordant white noise, exotic sounding singing, the familiar crackle of military radios as cross hairs scan a landscape. The layers of sound are uncomfortable at first, akin to the sound torture we hear about used in detention facilities to undermine a prisoner’s resolve. The visuals mapped across the set, alternate from the aerial views of lands below, perhaps as Amy might have seen the world as she flew above it, to scenes of explosions, military helicopters flying over minarets. It’s a very odd juxtaposition, which elicits sympathy for the detainee while simultaneously raising shades of suspicion. A further striking comparison is made when Ramzi describes Amy’s freedom to travel across the globe, over the Mediterranean, Middle East, landing wherever she chose, whilst he a century later cannot move freely across the globe. Why?

There’s a call played back to the audience between Aviatrix’s English director Olivia Furber and someone at the British Arts Council that seems to be about trying to get a temporary Visa. She then speaks to Ramzi still in detention – not sure how – there’s more than a hint of exasperation in her voice; she is curt even rude to her lead actor making tired assertions that Iraq and Palestine are somehow the same and he Ramzi can play the part of the Iraqi because lets face it who cares. At which point Ramzi has given up, telling her, ‘Do what you want.’ and probably adding something a little less gracious in his own tongue.

Some of Aviatrix stands up to scrutiny, the voices and writing are authentic, the visuals and soundscapes are hypnotic and unsettling. I particularly liked the way the guard’s movements were slowed down, suggestive of the altered sense of time experienced by the incarcerated. There was a very powerful moment where during a barrage of explosive sound and images, she places the life jacket over her head and slowly runs her hand over it – perhaps connecting with all those who have drowned in the Mediterranean, perhaps connecting with Ramzi. Maybe she was connecting with Amy, as she mysteriously plunged into the Thames years later, her body never to be found.

The detainee, the guard, the script for a performance called Aviatrix found in a suitcase, an imaginative way to approach telling the story of Amy Johnson. It’s clever, so many layers, the juxtaposition of ideas and imagery, almost experimental in a way. For long periods of time the piece was more installation than theatre. Then as I leave the theatre, I learn from a scrap of paper, that this is not a cleverly worked conceit, but actually a lesson in story-telling no matter the obstacle.

Ramzi Maqdisi was in fact detained in Tunisia and also the creators of the disturbing soundscapes, Paris-based Iranian artists Sara Bigdeli Shamoo and Nima Aghiani of 9T Antiope, were denied UK Visa applications.

This new information further compounds the idea of how Amy in 1930, moved so freely around the world, while so many face insurmountable barriers at each and every border today.

Part of me wanted and still does want, the cleverly worked conceit, pulling a scrap of detail and building an entire narrative around it, instead we have the, however courageous and commendable, ‘show must go on’ response to a set of unforeseen circumstances.


Aviatrix was directed by Olivia Furber with video design by Hannah Mason.

The Border Agent was played by Lizzie Bourne.

Aviatrix is an Amy Johnson Festival Commission created and performed by 9T Antiope (Iran) Quds Art Films (Palestine) and Ensemble 52 (UK). Supported by Arts Council England.  

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Filed under Art blogs, politics, Theatre

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