Rita was the first performance I saw at the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2019 and, I have to say, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. This was mostly because, perhaps ignorantly, I have never seen a show in a different language with only subtitles to help me understand. I needn’t have worried as the co-creators, Tuning People and BRONKS, do a magical job of taking us into the world of Rita. The physicality, humour, dance, and interactivity of the production had me engaged in the story throughout.
Rita tells the story of an elderly, 75-year-old woman played by Dancer, Choreographer, and Theatre-Maker, Randi de Vlieghe. Alongside her is the character of Rita’s carer, Martino, played by Jef Van Gestel. Whilst the character of Rita comes from a show the pair made in 2015 titled Football in High Heels, this version of Rita comes to us as a character and production in her / its own right. Rita presents as a woman with great imagination and sense of drama. Through her love for opera, she tries to escape from the monotonous daily grind of old age. In doing so, she gets lost in a strange labyrinth of her own brain where fiction and reality are no longer distinguishable to herself or, in certain moments, even to the audience. Rita gets frustrated with her carer who makes her eat her food and takes away her chips. In one particularly humorous moment, she puts an entire bag of chips into her mouth, only to be forced to spit them out into Martino’s hand, eliciting howls of laughter from the children in the audience. Yet, Rita is extremely lonely and Martino lovingly cares for her and provides her with company, for which she is very grateful.
I think what stood out to me above all in this performance was the pure playfulness of it. Without speaking any words, Rita’s character inhabits a wonderfully physical characterisation which immediately engages the audience. The absurd nature of the story allows Rita to do things that her character wouldn’t physically be able to cope with anymore in any naturalistic sense. She flits between the monotony of day to day life, illustrating the loneliness of old age, into a swirl of dance and an imaginary world of wonder that is accompanied by powerful operatic music and colourful lighting. Martino, with the only lines in the script, is brilliant in his interactions with the audience and engages with the children from the off. He invites the audience to shout ‘Surprise!’ at Rita, evoking squeals across the audience. Later in the performance, Martino invites certain members of the audience to play Bingo with Rita. She does not do anything to hide her anger when she loses! This beautiful piece of storytelling flirts with the line between Dance, Play, and Absurdist Theatre throughout.
But how is this ‘elderly Alice in Wonderland’ accessible to Young Audiences? Well, not only is it lively, funny, visually appealing, and constantly interactive, it is also clear that the relationship between Martino and Rita mirrors the format of relationships between children and elderly people, such as between children and their grandparents for instance. For a young audience, Rita leaves a subtle but important message: whilst old people may need help and support, this is not necessarily the only thing they want from intergenerational relationships. This piece reminds Young Audiences that elderly people still have life to give and to share with everyone.
Rita has a place in my heart – I almost immediately fell in love with the beauty of her dance and the heart of this vibrant and funny character. What a way to start the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering!
Rita was produced by Tuning People & BRONKS. It was created by Randi De Vlieghe & Jef Van frame.