Borges and I

Reviewer's Rating

Jorge Borges was a 20th Century Argentinian writer whose writing transcended the traditions and genres of the time, and who was greatly interested in different interpretations of texts and the individual experience of reading. Borges and I follows in the steps of these artistic leaps, defying classification with a medley of dance, physical theatre and monologue that traces the impacts of literature on our lives.

A projected image of a person turning the pages of a book plays as the audience take their seats, with piles of books stacked along the edges of the stage. The lights dim and the play opens with Alice’s (Kate Stanley) PowerPoint presentation on the importance of libraries. And then the PowerPoint fails and she is forced to deviate from the script – to talk about memory of words, childhood books and individual interpretation, and her words transition into voiceover as the scenery is moved and the play truly begins.

Borges and I interweaves the lives of Jorge Borges and the modern-day members of Alice’s book club, in particular the blossoming romance of the endearingly awkward Nick and Sophie (Joel Gatehouse and Sophie Cullen). Nick and Sophie’s interactions provide early humour in the piece – especially within the frame of the book club, where Grace Chapman’s overbearingly posh Hilary is amusingly larger-than-life, and the amount of different interpretations that can arise from the same text is brought to the fore. They reference popular books (Lord of the Rings, Eat Pray Love) without ever giving us their titles, meaning the audience only get the joke if they are part of that referential literary and cultural dialogue that Borges discussed. The book club scene spins into Alice’s monologue as she gives us facts about Borges’ life, extracts of his writing read out and enacted onstage. The ensemble work is seamless, actors flitting between roles and different types of movement effortlessly. Julian Spooner’s Borges is understated and oddly dreamlike – aided by light puppetry and projections within books, an enchanting otherworldly effect that helps create, quite literally, a world of books.

Books are used throughout to help create scenes – they come together to build planes, stairs and cities, and falling pages echo rain. The scenery is simple, chairs and bookshelves moving around to create waiting rooms and libraries, and the costumes remain largely the same, with the exception of Borges’ overcoat and glasses, a simple device that helps delineate between Spooner’s two main roles (he also plays Jim, a member of the book club).  The actors are barefoot throughout the play, evoking a sort of return to childhood. Reading is so alive as a child, and this production – and Borges’ own writing – aims to recapture some of that.

As the story takes a darker turn, the movement becomes more surreal, incorporating dance, slow-motion and a caging circle of books. Borges and Sophie’s stories become more closely entwined, echoing Borges’ theories of the continuum of literature and tradition throughout time. Both Gatehouse and Cullen excel in the more upsetting parts of the production, evoking the characters’ grief and frustration wonderfully. At the beginning of the play Borges’ childhood love of tigers is linked to Sophie’s favourite childhood book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and here, at the play’s emotional climax, the two are brought together in a beautiful celebration of childhood dreams and obstacles overcome. As Borges’ words are read out the ensemble begins to take over sections, a patchwork of voices claiming ownership and finding connection to his writing. Finally Jim shrugs on Borges’ overcoat, a slow transition as Jim’s words become Borges’ own, a constant dialogue and interchange throughout history.

At the end of the play we return to Alice’s presentation. She has shown us a whole world through her words, the myriad worlds that are available through reading and imagination. In the words of Borges himself, it is a word where “all men who quote Shakespeareare Shakespeare – and where we are all at once writes, readers and protagonists in this infinite story”.