Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s book is not your usual walk through the apocalypse. A deadly flu ripping through the population, killing almost everyone on the planet, is pretty standard. A story connecting multiple timelines, mapping the interconnected lives of an actor, his wife, their son, with an artist, mentor, actress, and healer, is not. Neither are the links each has with the enigmatic Station Eleven, a graphic novel that takes on an almost mystical significance in their post-pandemic world.
To describe it as complex undersells what unfolds.
Twenty years after the pandemic, the Travelling Symphony makes a living performing Shakespeare’s plays to communities of survivors. I have a feeling this troupe of “strolling players” trundling through the decaying remains of civilisation, atop horse-drawn RVs, is something Shakespeare would recognise. The Symphony’s wondrously staged productions, and gloriously inventive costumes, tease meaning from the harshness, a living “Museum of Civilisation” connecting with the past, keeping a dying culture alive.
Not everyone shares the Symphony’s reverence for the time before. The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) has a more antagonistic relationship with life past. It’s in this tension, between all things pre and post pandemic, between those connected with civilisation, and the “post-pan” children, for whom the world before is a myth, that the drama unfolds. When the Symphony repeats the mantra “we don’t leave the wheel” they’re not only talking about the route they take, the communities the perform to, but the culture they cling to. If Shakespeare is culture, written down, Station Eleven is the return to, the re-emergence of, the oral traditions of storytelling, of keeping history.
It’s the culture gone full circle.
Narratively inventive, the story’s fluid relationship with time, jumping back and forth, weeks, month, years before and after the pandemic, leaves the feeling of memories alive in your mind. For the infant and adult Kirsten (Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), the Symphony’s best actress, they’re more than just memories, they’re real and active, alive. There’s a sequence, you might call it a dream, where younger and older Kirsten are together, fully engage, talking to one other, communicating across time.
This dynamic approach to storytelling brings depth to apocalypse.