Pioneer, Shoreditch Town Hall - Review

Space travel has always been a costly affair, but in these prolonged years of economic austerity, you would be forgiven for thinking prioritising urgent matters on our own planet seems prudent, if not forward-thinking.  Pure science – a.k.a. conducting research for its own sake, rather than with an ultimate goal in mind – is unfortunately an increasingly rare phenomenon.

There’s a line in curious directive’s devised play Pioneer, where one of the characters talks of architecture being the political of the arts, in terms of its ideology and who benefits from it. By the same token, space travel can be measured in similar terms and it is its multi-faceted mountain that theatre company curious directive that attempts to scale. Ambitious and insightful, Pioneer looks forward within our own lifetime at one possible outcome for interplanetary transportation, while keeping one foot firmly planted here and now on Terra Firma.

Pioneer begins on the cusp of mankind’s second expedition to Mars. Funded by private enterprise – a consortium of investors led by an Indian billionaire, the Ghara I Mars mission is a two-pronged affair. Ahead of the next imminent landing on Mars’ surface there’s Dutch husband and wife team Imke and Oskar Drescher, conducting agricultural experiments to test the feasibility of growing crops in the Red Planet’s harsher environment.  We’re also introduced to Russian student Alyosha Korolev and his older brother Ivan, who make their pilgrimage to landmarks associated with their famous cosmonaut forebear, in addition to Shari Dasgupta (Flight Director for the Ghara Mars mission) who is advised by the PR-savvy Rudi Van der Waal. Their respective stories and others I’ve yet to mention all converge, whereupon we realise where they fit and how important they really all are in the bigger picture.

Rather than shy away from the technical aspects of telling a story about space travel, curious directive have embraced the challenge. Using a variety of multi-media techniques, the theatre company has punched above its weight in delivering a satisfying and believable aesthetic for domiciles and equipment in the near-future.

While the play can justifiably be proud of its design-related innovation, what makes the play ‘work’ is the narrative that is grounded in tangible possibilities and readily identifiable situations. For all the rhetoric of man’s destiny lying beyond the next mountain over the horizon, the play is about the need for people, companionship – things which even the most stoic explorer or individual would admit in a moment of unguarded honesty, as desirable.

Another thing that sets the play apart from other science-related plays is the way it subverts the established cultural hegemony. Of the female characters which make up half the cast, all the roles depict women as renowned scientists in their fields – a ‘given’ rather than something to comment on. The primal mover behind the Ghara mission’s funding is a woman, as is the person in charge of day-to-day operations. All of this takes place away from the established scientific communities in America and Europe. Relationships are paramount in this ‘Brave New World’ and it’s interesting to note that some of the most important relationships in the play are behind the scenes, driving the plot and the emotional arc – the mentoring ‘quasi’ mother-daughter relationship between Mrs Singh (the billionaire investor) with Flight Director Shari, and Imke and her sister Maartje who are kept apart by the demands of their jobs.

Some of the best examples of science fiction exhibit a sense of wonder about  the universe, as well as an unnerving ability to critique the human condition. Pioneer does both in equal measure, showing that  the poet and the scientist are two sides of the same coin.

© Michael Davis

Pioneer finishes its run at Shoreditch Town Hall on 22nd April and continues its nationwide tour afterwards. For details of this, see


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