A new play, about old things, Curio (A Cabinet of Curiosities) is well worth considering.

Edinburgh is a city filled with surprise and wonder all year round, and cultural curiosity can be satisfied not just in the Fringe venues, but at the cities many museums. Curio, which can be found at The Space at the Surgeon’s Museum this week, asks us to consider what’s on display; does what we see tell us more about history, or about ourselves?

Born of a PHD research project in African-American Studies and American Studies by writer Danielle Bainbridge, Curio explores the complex history of slavery and freak show ‘curiosities’ and our contemporary attitudes to them by pairing her research with live performance. The two performers (Aria Proctor and Duval Courteau) simultaneously represent Danielle, the researcher and the ‘objects’ of her curiosity, Millie Christine McKoy, the African American ‘Freak Show twins’, from the mid 19th century.

You’ll find academic language, and an almost clinical dissection of her research material in performance form, but you’ll also find the human story behind the facts and dusty archive boxes. The performers, in their specially designed twin costume, perform songs and play hand bells, taking the notes from the stained pages to the live stage for the first time in, who knows! It’s a rare and nostalgic treat to hear the music, even though its origin story is so complex. Can we ever love and appreciate aspects of a past, that are still making the present so sick?

Can we ever love and appreciate aspects of a past, that are still making the present so sick?

Despite the age of the material, the technical aspects of the play have not been left in the past by director Rosemary Malague. Integrating live photographic capture into the projections on the stage, she intelligently asks us to consider how material for archives is captured. By who? For who? And with who’s permission?

Malague also keeps us on board through the scene changes, which in zig-zagging between contemporary, past and a critical perspective somewhere outside of the two, can be tricky to keep track of. At times, it can feel like Bainbridge has been over-ambitious in the bringing together of some of her material, and the piece could benefit from some condensing. Nevertheless, her pairing of slavery with cocktail parties, American sitcoms and game shows is bold, and feels important. She jokes that her research choices do not make for small-talk, and I have to agree. This is, as she terms it ‘big talk’.

She jokes that her research choices do not make for small-talk, and I have to agree.

The Surgeon’s Museum around us is of course filled with archival specimens, and we are asked to consider this by the programming of Curio in this specific location. Perhaps that is what made Edinburgh a natural choice for the play’s first venture off American soil after premiering at the University of Pennsylvania in May. The ‘Freak show’ McKoy twins were spared autopsy and display in death; indeed, we are told the family guarded their grave for months afterwards, but I can’t help but think of Charles Byrne ‘The Irish Giant’ who lived and died in Edinburgh. He is still encased in glass and on display against his will in John Hunter, the Scottish surgeon’s, Hunterian Museum in London.

Curio is an intelligent and thought-provoking piece of work that invites us to look beyond the glass jars, at the sometimes joyful, sometimes sobering history inside, and consider our place within it.

Curio

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