Alex Bird on Ragnorak

After a critically-acclaimed, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Concerned Others, multi-award winning Tortoise in a Nutshell return with a brand-new production that fuses together forms. Ragnorak sees a miniature world of cities, mountains and valleys, populated by hundreds of hand-crafted clay figures and brought to life through live feed camera work, recorded voices and an atmospheric immersive soundtrack; posing vital questions about the human condition.

The production played Edinburgh last weekend part of Manipulate Festival ahead of a tour across Scotland. We caught up with Alex Bird, co-director of Tortoise in a Nutshell and the director of Ragnarok, to find out more about the show’s beginning at Manipulate Festival and what it’s like to be touring Scotland with the show.

Q&A with Alex Bird

What can you tell us about Ragnarok?

Ragnarok is a new visual theatre production by Tortoise in a Nutshell in co-production with Figurteatret i Nordland and in association with MacRobert Arts Centre.

The piece is an adaptation of the old Norse cyclical myth of the same name, which depicts the world’s end and rebirth. It talks about human connection, our relationship as individuals to seemingly uncontrollable global events and concepts such as fate and self determinism.

On stage an ensemble of four performers/musicians bring to life hundreds of small scale figures via live feed camera work, creating a kind of live animation, which plays out before the audience’s eyes.

A fictional story, depicting a young woman’s journey across a fractured and dying world, Ragnarok is an intricate, immersive and compelling new production from a collaboration of brilliant artists, working with one of Scotland’s leading visual theatre companies.

What can you tell us about your role in the production?

We’ve been working on Ragnarok as an idea since 2017/18 and over the years all of our roles have shifted and evolved! As a company Tortoise in a Nutshell is driven by an ethos of collaboration and collegiate making. To that end rehearsal rooms start off feeling pretty hierarchy-less, and it’s only really towards the final stage of things that people fall into defined roles to help support each other and keep responsibilities clear and well defined.

Over the years I’ve been on stage performing and standing outside looking in on Ragnarok, it’s been a real and genuine privilege to get work with the brilliant team of people who’ve come together through various iterations to present this piece. For this final stage of the piece before we headed out on tour I took on the role of supporting direction. There’s a huge amount of material in the production (it’s essentially a live film in a way), with a live musician, intricate lighting design, video and performance all combining to create something that feels really immersive and highly detailed. It’s been really joyful to help pull all of that together and find the ways in which all the different techniques we use in the piece flow and talk to each other.

Ragnarok can be a slightly hard production to describe in words, it’s real strength is the way we’ve tried to create it as something to experience live. But we’ve poured a huge number of hours and attention into it between us as a team of makers, we really hope people enjoy it and that the sense of attention we’ve tried to apply to every moment makes for a really unique experience.

What is it like to be touring the show across Scotland?

Part of the reason for the length of time that it’s taken to develop this show is absolutely about the COVID-19 pandemic. It feels brilliant to be back out on the road with a larger scale production after that period of time.

The driving force behind Tortoise in a Nutshell’s work is to create experiences that connect with and inspire people’s imaginations. We really love the idea that different people might respond to our work in different ways, and we try to carefully craft things to leave space for people to come to their own conclusions. For us it’s the great strength of live culture, the connections it allows us to make as individuals and communities.

So getting back out on the road feels great…it’s the reason we’re here! We’ve tried to take this piece to every space in the country where it fits and hopefully there’s a good future ahead of us in terms of taking the piece on further as well.

You’re also performing as part of Manipulate Festival – what is it like to be performing at the festival and alongside such varied works of theatre?

This piece had its starting point at Manipulate as a very early-days work in progress. The support we’ve received has been brilliant and pivotal in terms of bringing the piece to fruition.

We’ve always been interested in making work that steps across lines of genres and that borrows from lots of different traditions. So Manipulate feels like a really natural place to present the piece to us. It’s a hugely exciting festival, driven by a passion for work that connects with audiences and communities, but which isn’t necessarily rooted in one artistic place or theme.

It’s the one time of the year where a curated programme of this sort comes together, so it’s a great chance to see something that really inspires and gives you a chance to escape into a different world. I love those moments.

Is there anything you hope audiences take away from Ragnarok?

We really wanted to make something that in some way was about hope. We weren’t thinking about particular events or times when we made this piece necessarily, but our work is always driven by a desire to support and explore notions of community and human connection. A story exploring apocalyptic themes might seem a funny way of doing that I suppose, but our hope is that the piece connects with people and gives them a unit of time to explore its themes.

We wanted to make a story about a fictional person’s experience of working through the end of their world. To imagine what that might feel like. I suppose our hope is that by creating a fictional story we might help people look again at the world in which we live now and the shared role we have in shaping it.

Ragnorak was at Traverse Theatre on 10 and 11 February as part of Manipulate Festival, then touring