As the media’s news cycle becomes ever faster, ever tighter, its searing spotlight blinking bright for just a moment before it turns away, already bored, so too does our ability to care. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but it’s the natural result of too much information, poorly processed, caught in time. For a week or so we are all experts, the names of cyclones, Burmese generals or Zimbabwean politicians tripping off our tongues; then the caravan of news rolls on.
Just as the news cycle has grown tighter, faster, so too has the speed at which today’s shock headline is tomorrow’s drama — and at which novelty becomes familiar. Boat people, cockle pickers, paedophiles all too easily become dramatic shorthand, a spice to add to the familiar recipes of TV drama, crime novels and soaps. All the more reason, therefore, to applaud The Paper Birds for their new show In A Thousand Pieces, which takes a fresh look at sex trafficking, one of the most simplistically exploited themes of recent years.
The devising of the show began with time in Poland, as well as deep research with charities in the UK, and could easily have become didactic, telling us what we choose not to know. But while the research is certainly there, it does exactly what it should do: gives the show conviction, clarity and purpose, rather than the grim recital of fact. Because, despite the darkness of its subject matter, the show itself is exhilarating, both physically and intellectually. There’s some wonderful theatrical craft: two suitcases banged together become electric airport doors; an outstretched arm and a Glade fir tree is all it takes to conjure up a taxi; a simple jar of buttons becomes a bitter litany of rape. Intellectually too it’s thrilling, as the cast deconstruct their own experience of devising it, discuss the dangers of cliche, and confront a problematic issue: can attractive young women play sexual victims without in some way exploiting themselves? There’s also a brilliantly funny section in which they mime to recordings of street interviews, highlighting the easy prejudice of Daily Mail readers — and then slyly undermine some equally simplistic liberal judgments: no-one here gets off the hook.
If anything, the Birds could have more confidence in their work. The score, by their regular composer and collaborator Shane Durrant, is powerfully emotional, but in places too insistent; the performances can carry the emotions alone. A video projection, paradoxically, illustrated Poland less effectively than words and simple props. But these are minor issues. In A Thousand Pieces is what theatre should be: simple resources, superlative craft and challenging ideas, beautifully brought together. I hope we’ll see the Paper Birds back at CPT soon.