Based on a novel by Italo Calvino, Ramesh Meyyappan's touring production, Snails & Ketchup, explores dependance and independence. Paul F Cockburn reviews this Unlimited commission, produced as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Published originally in 1957, the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s award-winning novel, Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees), explores ideas of independence and dependency through the story of Cosimo, a nobleman’s son who, in a rebellious act after refusing to eat a dinner of snails prepared by his sadistic sister, climbs up a tree and decides never to come down again.
Fed up with family, tradition, decorum and his future role as his father’s heir, Cosimo eventually becomes self-sufficient within his arboral kingdom, better able to help everyone below from the safety of his objective, distanced point of view. All of which is fine; until, that is, he falls in love…
Originally performed last year, Snails & Ketchup isn’t so much an adaptation of the Calvino novel as a translation of its basic concepts, with Glasgow-based Singaporean Ramesh Meyyappan reimagining words printed on paper into exquisite expressions of posture and movement by the human body.
Necessarily, given the restrictions imposed by a running time of under an hour, much of the plot of the novel is cut away — not least the presence of the novel’s narrator, Cosimo’s younger brother Biagio. Snails & Ketchup instead presents us with a simpler family of tyrranical father, homely mother, happy and curious son and sadistic daughter.
This is very much a show where less is more; there are no distractingly elaborate costumes, sets or complex lighting effects used to distinguish place or mood. The accompanying music helps, but everything is grounded on Ramesh’s ability to flutter between the characters, even during a fight, without his audience losing any narrative clarity.
Ramesh differentiates between his characters with the simplest of exquisitely mimed movements: Cosimo’s sister’s seemingly innocent curling of the ringlets of her hair; their father’s malicious fingering of his moustache; their mother’s increasingly bizarre belief that every problem in the world — whether it’s a hand cut or crying babies — can be solved with nothing more than a needle and thread.
Indeed, the only jarring moments in an otherwise coherent performance are when particular character-assigned melodies are faded to silence earlier than the music itself would suggest, all the better to fit in with the overall narrative of Ramesh’s performance.
Described as a “darkly comic tale of a dysfunctional family”, there are certainly laughs to be had, but what you remember most is its bitter-sweet taste which underlines the story’s core message of how it is sometimes difficult to live with the people we love.
At the heart of the show, of course, is Ramesh’s absolutely captivating, compelling performance. His assured physicality is all the more remarkable, given that much of the choreography — and there really isn’t a better term for the seemingly effortless quality of his precise, graceful movement — takes place some 20 feet above a stage with no safety net.
This is a brave, heartfelt and, above all, enchanting performance. Catch it if you can.
Skewered Snails, the follow-up production to Ramesh Meyyappan’s solo work, Snails & Ketchup, is showing as part of the Unlimited Festival at the following venues: