Few writers’ stories take root in the mind with the tenacity of the work of Jorge Luis Borges. An Argentine recognised in his lifetime as one of the most groundbreaking and fascinating literary philosophers around, Borges became director of the National Public Library of Buenos Aires at around the same time as his eyesight left him for good. This cosmic coincidence was registered by the author in typically poetic fashion: “God, who with such splendid irony, | Granted me books and night at one touch.”
It is these sorts of ironies – the dizzying heights of human intellect frustrated by profound and often existential limitations – that recur in Borges’s probing nuggets, which happen to be compulsively readable. They are explored in a way that could have been constructed only by a writer who was, blindness or no blindness, a visionary.
This visionary quality is captured with stunning, poignant clarity by nascent theatre company Idle Motion. The cast of six talented Oxonians, all friends who met at the Cherwell School, perform two loose and interspersed narratives. One is a conventional comic/dramatic story about a book club, and a romance that evolves from within it, while the other is an elliptical, allusive performance of aspects of Borges’s life: his youth, his maturation, his encroaching loss of sight. The main narrative appears unrelated to Borges at first, until the themes – which include a questing engagement with literature, and coping with blindness – make themselves apparent.
Like Borges’s stories, this is a brisk, modest work. Its dedication, resourcefulness, and refusal to impose positivist readings onto its subject (and his subjects) are infused with a passion that puts most big-budget biopics to shame. Dozens of physical books metamorphose before our eyes into skylines, aeroplanes, entire libraries. These books feature cut-outs, inserts, and carefully wrought holes, and are often canvases for powerfully imaginative light displays, which surely could not be topped in their demonstration of the tension between the eternal and the ephemeral: a tension felt by every human, and one explored beautifully in Borges’s writing.
As can be seen from the play’s title, it’s a highly personal interpretation; and yet, again reflecting the work of the Argentine, it manages to be truly universal. The ‘main’ narrative isn’t just about books and their ubiquity: it’s largely about the place of literature in our identity, as a species and as individuals. As trite as this looks written down, Idle Motion use books, puppets, coats, umbrellas, and shadow plays to make this come alive in a beautiful, undeniable way. They make it seem obvious. More importantly, they make it unlikely that anyone who sees the play would not want to go out and buy Labyrinths for Christmas.
One might complain that the play covers few of Borges’s literary and philosophical preoccupations in any depth, but this seems almost churlish. Interestingly, Borges and I appears more concerned with the writer himself than with his work, and as such, given its modest scope, it works. It is an Artistic Achievement. Such is the synchronicity between actors, script, and production design, it isn’t surprising that its four artistic directors – Grace Chapman, Sophie Cullen, Ellie Simpson and Kate Stanley – comprise most of the cast.
The production first found success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009, and has doubtless matured since then. It’s a funny, moving work of consummate professionalism, and deserves your time and money. We need more theatre this brainy and hearty.