There was a moment during Metta Theatre’s performance of Sexing the Cherry at Queen Elizabeth Hall last night when a character was literally lifted off the floor by love. A rare occurrence on or off the stage, but then nothing about this inventive adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s novel respects the boundaries of space, time or gravity.
Sexing the Cherry is a coming-of-age story of sorts chronicling the unusual travels of a 17th century orphan named Jordan. In pursuit of a mysterious dancer named Fortunata, he voyages to the ends of the earth and beyond, to peculiar lands where love has been banned, and people have done away with ceilings and floors. Centuries pass before they’ve finally caught up. By then, it is Jordan, played with an appropriate air of wonder by Samuel Collings, who is beginning to drift away.
With a cast of just six to embody its many shifts of scene, director Poppy Burton-Morgan’s staging takes leaps of imagination and expects the audience to do the same. No body is wasted: arms link to become wells and balloon baskets, humans turn into yelping dogs, actors double as musicians and transform into paintings. Loren O’Dair, who plays no less than twelve characters, spends most of her stage time airborne on a slim but sturdy rope. Her turn (or turns) nearly steal the show. The only other scenery consists of a projection screen, which, when blank, turns the intimate Purcell room stage into a shadow theatre.
The combination of simplicity and transparency is part of Metta Theatre’s desire to, in its words, “make theatre that wears its theatricality on its sleeve.” In this approach they’ve found the ideal co-conspirator in Jeanette Winterson, whose early books, and Sexing the Cherry in particular, are really stories about storytelling. If this sounds a bit academic rest assured, both versions wear their theories lightly. For Metta Theatre, as for Winterson, narrative is not so much the point as a point of departure.
Suspension is the governing motif in this retelling. Of time, of gravity – and because this is the kind of theatre where the magical and physical meet – of the body. In the play’s best sequence, O’Dair and Collings share the rope that she had earlier occupied, as Jordan and his long lost Fortunata frolic, reunited, above the stage. It seems fitting somehow that a story so immersed in the metaphor of dance would let dance deliver its most graceful lines, wordlessly.