Message in a Bottle – Strong Story of Our Times

If the title Message in a Bottle makes you think of a Nicholas Sparks novel, think twice. This dance show has nothing to do with literature and everything with the things going on in the world. It is inspired  – and contains – the music of Sting. The title is taken from one of the songs in his repertoire: Message in a Bottle, sending out an S.O.S.

The opening scene to Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

The story behind Message in a Bottle

The scene is set in a village in a country far away and tells the story of a family and their three children Leto, Mati and Tana. The costumes and the music arrangement suggest a country in the Middle East – a part of the world that has been troubled by conflict over the past 30 years where people are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or prosecution.

It all starts with a happy family and joyous celebrations. One of the three children just got married. The music and the dance support these positive feelings in the audience. The dancers could look happier during the first few dances. This will change….

Portia Oti in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

ZooNation The Kate Prince Company in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

Rutendo Mushongo and Gavin Vincent in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

Portia Oti, Onyemachi Ejimofor and Harrison Dowzell (front), Rutendo Mushongo and Gavin Vincent (back) in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

The turn in the plot

The village suddenly comes under siege. It gets dark in the theatre, in the music and on the faces. This feeling of threat also captures the audience upon the sounds of gunfire and the appearance of hooded fighters dressed entirely in black. One of the most impressive scenes, because of how well it is told on stage, is that of the attack on the village women. Fighters enter. They target one person. When the newly-wed girl tries to help  her friend she is assaulted and abducted instead.

It is always impressive how great artists translate terrible events to the stage without taking things too far, but can still convey all the emotions. This scene is a perfect example.

Devastated by the losses they experience, the survivors flee their home and set out on a dangerous journey.

Portia Oti, Gavin Vincent and Nafisah Baba in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

Hannah Sandilands and Lindon Barr on stage in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

ZooNation The Kate Prince Company in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre. (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

Dramatic effects

This is where the music and dramatic features become the dominating factor. Sitting in the audience, it feels like a Virtual Realist experience. The only thing that could make the dancers journey at sea feel more real would have been actual rain in the theatre. Dramatic effects through sound and light give us goose-bumps. Nobody – not in the audience and not on the stage – can deny what was happening after that.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Banksy)

Especially in light of the recent events in Afghanistan, there can be no better words to connect Message in a Bottle to the real world, to what is happening right now.

Humanity, love and hope

Inspired by the lyrics of Sting, the show continues to tell the story of the three siblings in their new homes. Englishman in New York works well as a symbol for anyone feeling displaced. The feeling of not fitting in describes the young man who discovers love. With this, Message in a Bottle, brings up another topic that has been a taboo for a long time, and that is often still stigmatized: homosexual love.

The song Roxanne is used to great effect as it shows where the couple we first saw getting married find each other again.

Less clear is the story of the the third sibling; a girl, who finds nuturing and support in a green and pleasant land, surrounded by new friends.

What is clear, though, is that, without a single spoken word, the audience can easily follow the plot.

All three certainly find happiness again, and make their own future in their new homes. It isn’t clear if the siblings reconnect in real life, although the choreography clearly shows their spirits bound forever.

This happiness and potential reconnection is where art departs from the reality experienced by most refugees..

Choreography

As you would expect with Kate Prince, each dancer is a master of at least one movement form, and the choreography comprises a huge meld of styles. This post-lockdown reimagined version incorporates such moves (presumably the choreographic development built on each specialists’ work whilst staying true to the original concepts). Contemporary, street, hip-hop, waacking, breaking, lyrical jazz and even krump are combined. Repeating movement themes are used to great effect. One represents striving, work and family. Another depicts the closeness of the three siblings recurs as a measure against which we can appreciate their travails.

The Set and The Rest

The show is a textbook example of the importance of facial expressions on stage. These emotions help us – as audience – empathise and understand what the characters are going through. The set is stunning. It is that type of simplicity that takes huge talent to create. A huge concave container of sand represents variously the sun, aspirations and the sands of time. Climbing-frame-type constructions become prison walls, an office, a brothel and more. Colourful clothes draped equisitely on dancers’ frames are easily shed to reveal other clothes that imply changes in situation, mood and characters’ attitude. A packed and overcrowded trip over a stormy sea is portrayed almost completely through changes in light.

Now at The Peacock Theatre

After a long break due to COVID-19, Message in a Bottle is reimagined, and back at The Peacock Theatre until 17th October. The show, produced by Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK, is set to the hits of 17-time Grammy Award-winning artist Sting and features the astonishing talents of dance storytelling powerhouse, ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company.

The story behind the show and the strong political message are important, and provide a reason – should you need it – to attend. The stunning choreography is  – of course – another. ZooNation has produced another great experience that we can both recommend, and since our 18 year-old friend spent the entire show on the edge of her seat, we suspect that she’d recommend it too.

Gavin Vincent in Message in a Bottle at The Peacock Theatre (images above and below). (c) Julia-Carolin Zeng

co-written with Carole Edrich