Entering the dim space, there appear to be two sculptural forms. To one side, towards the rear, is a tall metal stepladder, the top end of its steps disappearing into a kind of open-ended cocoon. To the other side, towards the front, is what seems to be a hulking rusting statue. The statue is lit in an intense beam of light, and we see that it is made from old and battle-scarred leather. A dull electronic drone intensifies, and the distorted echoes of mortar bombs sound. a hand emerges from what we now see is a battered old great-coat. The hand is pale, naked, and as it emerges from the coat sleeve it twitches unbearably. It looks raw, exposed against the rough leather. A second hand appears. Now both are twitching and flicking, the only signs of life in the great mass of leather, lit by the beam of light. Next, a head. A mostly shaved head – although there are two strips of hair, a kind of mohawk strip on top, and a Coco the Clown semi-circle of hair round the back. The head is tortoise-like as it pushes itself forward. The eyes are large and look out to us, then dart to each side. It is a face that is simultaneously monstrous and utterly human. As the sound grows ever more chaotic and intense, the bass notes of the thudding bombs resonating through our bodies, the body that we are watching emerge from its protective shell becomes, part by part, fully animated. Eventually – and it is after a long time, a mesmerising sequence of precise physical action – the man emerges, shrugging off his great-coat, and standing to face us.
As the piece progresses, we witness a stunning evocation of the experience of post-traumatic stress syndrome – specifically, that experienced by soldiers who have survived war. It’s a completely word-free piece – everything we experience is in the performer’s brilliant physicality, the visual landscape (defined by beautiful lighting design by Alberto Santos Bellido), and the intense, multi-layered soundscape (by Guy Veale). All merge beautifully to create an extraordinary and shocking language of trauma. We are taken right into the heart of the soldier’s experience.
The heart of darkness is always present, but there are variations in tone. Sometimes our soldier laughs wildly, sometimes he shakes and sobs. There’s a break in the intensity of the soundscape of distorted drones, bomb blasts, and machine-gun fire for a blast of danceband music. ‘Home Sweet Home’ croons the singer on the scratchy recording, as the soldier sits on his chair and sways, swigging brandy from a bottle.
At other points in the piece the movement work is less mimetic, more hardcore corporeal. Often, a mimetic movement morphs into an abstracted choreography. For example, as he takes on a long cardboard cone onto his arms, playing with the suggestion that they could be either prosthetic limb or machine gun. Later, a second cone is added, and he stands tall and strong, and spins his arms in all directions, a cyborg powerhouse, a killing machine. The stepladder takes on an ominous, mythical role. It is edged around, approached, leapt away from as if it was burning hot. It is an object of fascination, desire and terror.
Al Seed’s Oog comes almost a decade after The Factory, and is described as a companion piece to that seminal work. In between, there has been an extraordinary body of work in many different forms and genres – some with and some without words – crossing the divides of dance, theatre and performance art. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen by this extraordinarily talented artist – but The Factory and now this new work Oog, twin towers of terror and despair, I love to bits. If you have any interest at all in physical theatre, in theatre without words; or if you perhaps doubt the power of word-free theatre to tell stories, then this is the show for you.
I left, to steal a metaphor, shell-shocked. An extraordinary piece of work.