In an age when family tree research has become a hobby of choice for thousands, are we able to connect all those names and dates for our ancestors with the historical context of the time?
The past is never dead. It’s not even past – so quoted poet William Faulkner but, for many people, researching their family’s past it is often with a sense of regret that they didn’t talk to their grandparents while they had the chance.
The performers in Foster and Dechery’s Epic have seized that opportunity to interview their grandparents and relate their experiences to the major events of the 20th Century. Links to the Second World War, the overthrow of Portugal’s dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, and the Parisian student riots of the 1960s all provide milestones for these genealogical travels.
What happens, though, if your family history doesn’t contain any major historical tie-in? What if you’ve left it too late to talk to your grandparents?
Devised and performed by Chloé Dechéry, Lucy Foster, Edward Rapley and Pedro Innes, the show uses Brectian principles to reinforce the message that we are only observers into these historical events, taking our own interpretation from the events rather than witnessing them first hand.
While this does add a layer of depth to the piece and lifts it from being a purely anecdotal oral history lesson, it does sometimes sit uncomfortably (perhaps intentionally) with the personal nature of the narrative.
Epic makes effective use of multiple projection screens (video designed by Ian William Galloway), wheeled around the stage in choreographed unison. Onto these screens are projected the real life interviews with the performers’ grandparents, an often moving experience. There is a touching scene when Ed Rapley’s grandfather forgets his name. Rapley informs us this is not down to dementia but the fact that they barely know each other.
The company combines these projections with monologues, dance and folk songs to create a multi-discipline approach to history. There’s a real sense of the need to record these stories and pass this vital information onto next generation.
Despite the intimate nature of the reconciliations and the evocative staging, it is somewhat difficult to fully emotionally connect with the entire evening. Perhaps it’s the Bertolt Brecht influence but, at times, the evening seems oddly clinical. What the show does manage, and manage well, though, is to bring relevance to major world events to the individual level and show that it is often the most seemingly ordinary of people that can make the biggest impact.
Perhaps a quote from the end of the show says it all: ‘What connection can you have with history apart from through family stories, and even then they are only borrowed.’