PUSH Festival 2020.
Her grandmother’s many tales of an idyllic Malaysian childhood fascinated Nishla Smith as she herself was growing up. So much so, she recorded hours and hours of them. Using music and song, Smith revisits those stories but gives them a darker twist as she tries to make sense of the one gap in her grandmother’s recollections – what happened to her older sister Agnes?
At the point when Agnes was nine years old, she just disappears from memory. Using that sudden and unexplained absence as a springboard, Smith attempts to bring the story of her grandmother’s missing sister into clearer focus by reimagining Agnes’s childhood, and seeing where it leads her.
Through a series of songs, Smith uses the details of her grandmother’s childhood as hooks on which to hang a slightly different narrative. It’s still one where children run barefoot, play in the local stream and are seemingly free from fear, but Smith also adds an undercurrent of danger. As Agnes makes her way through the landscapes and adventures recalled by her younger sister, there are regular hints that at some point her time in this retelling must come to an inevitable end.
A piano sits to one side, while Smith travels back and forward between a chair and a bench. At times it can feel a bit too static, and perhaps even stagey. Fortunately, Luca Shaw’s striking projections add another layer of movement, as they illuminate two large wooden backdrops shaped like the jagged outline of distant mountains. As Agnes’s story shifts from streamside to tropical jungle, or even takes to the air, Shaw’s hand-painted animations drench the stage with colour, and the rich vivid pigments seep into the plain white fabric of Smith’s dress. Blurry at the edges, the imagery is slightly indistinct, like the memories that underpin the unfolding stories.
Smith clips a white ribbon to her hair, to match her simple dress, as she walks barefoot into the world she has created for the girl whose existence is seemingly lost to time. Although the production notes talk of magic realism, the show’s references feel more rooted in the story-telling of childhood. A bedside lamp glows in the dark, and a young girl appears to step through the wooden frame of a looking glass.
With its tales of talking animals and never-ending staircases, the show skillfully captures a child-like sense of wonder. However, although hidden dangers lurk in the stories that are told, any sharp edges have been rubbed away, and it can all feel a bit too safe, and lacking in real bite. Which is surprising, because just beneath the surface of those happy playful times that Smith heard so much about as a child, lie some startling realities – illness, death, war, and the Japanese invasion of Malaysia.
Tom Harris’s piano score is beautiful, and there’s a wistful, plaintive mood to Smith’s singing. Eventually, the mystery of Agnes’s disappearance is solved, and the conclusion highlights the selectiveness of memory and the slipperiness of the past. However, one sure thing stands out, and that’s the powerful pull of family – the connection between Smith and her grandmother shines through. Heartfelt, and powered by a passion for story-telling, What Happened To Agnes is undoubtedly a labour of love.
Performance seen on 25 January 2020.