Author Archives: G Hilton


About G Hilton

GJ Hilton is a designer and choreographer who specialises in performing objects and machines. He is a frequent collaborator with The Kazimier, Liverpool.

Ultima Vez: What the Body Does Not Remember

Ultima VezIt is now 28 years since What the Body Does Not Remember first balled sinewy fists, put its head down and flung itself sweatily, knees and elbows first, at the sternum of dance audiences. The style it heralded, full of sound and fury, came to be called — sniffily – Eurocrash, and the rest… is history.

The work, Wim Vandekeybus’s début, a perennial teaching and workshop fixture of the company it inaugurated, and now revived for the third time in an epic international tour (ongoing since 2012) is, one senses, foundational more than simply career-wise. The work of a young man, it asks impertinently large, fundamental questions about its art form, and in reply proclaims its own manifesto with the uncouth certainty of youth.

Cognitive scientists distinguish procedural from declarative memory: the former backs learned ability — the how of experience; the latter traffics in the state of the world – the why. The title of the work is a provocation, but if we take it seriously, declares a systematic exclusion of (what it asserts to be) the customary stock of other theatrical dance: the ‘how’ – the technical, the drilled; and its replacement as world-motor by what is usually excluded – adventitious necessity, a real-time non-negotiable why. ‘Why move?’ the piece insistently nags. Because I’m off balance; because over there things will be better; because I want that jacket; because I need to keep this feather aloft; because that falling brick will hit her if I don’t. Because that’s the game.

Vandekeybus develops his theatrical argument through six chapters working through introduction, exposition (via experiments in response to a class of stimulus object) and conclusion:
1) A seated woman’s hands rasp, caress, tap, slap, thump an amplified tabletop. Two men sprawl and thrash across the floor, call and response, training us to hear the whinnies and fusillades of Thierry de May and Peter Vermeesch’s skronktrack not so much as conventional accompaniment as electrified goad.
2) Cinderblocks are laid as stepping stones and stacked into henges. Soon they become hurled projectiles, finally rubble and billowing dust.
3) Jackets are worn and exchanged; pocket-picking escalates to jacket theft. Towels replace them in vogue; they journey from costume to contested possession to discarded burden.
4) Problematically, the female cast becomes object: patting down gives way to aggressive touching up — a disturbing vignette, and greatly more so as their resistance melts. Acceptable in the Eighties perhaps, and best left there.
5) Chairs crystallise posed tableaux evoking burgeoning family groups; one character meanwhile struggles alone with his chair.
6) Territorial stamping, a reverse overture, a medley of recapitulations and reframings, vocabulary triumphantly decoded as tightly-meshed interlocking components. This is a theatre of elaborate pattern, naked of ornament; of striking situations without enduring images. Vandekeybus is little interested in finesse, more with silhouette, still more with dynamics, and most of all with architectural trajectories through space. It is as graphic and legible as motorway signage, and as exquisite.

I picture the choreographic process of What the Body Does Not Remember involving a squared exercise book, a rainbow of colour-coded felt tips, and very possibly — considering how deeply it scores diagonals through its bare stage space — a protractor. Vandekeybus elaborates his language by exhaustive exemplification, permutation, and combination like a grammarian tabulating declensions. The punctuating motif of the introduction, parallel pronated arms, recurs: forklifting towels, patted on thighs as invitation to sit on a lap; turning up cinderblocks; shunting towels across the floor; and in a dozen more rhymes and derivations. The work is a textbook of pattern making, an obsessive fugal compendium of four-dimensional tilings and tessellations. Vandekeybus favours transformations which are in the mathematical sense, affine, operations that conserve lines in parallel: he scales, rotates, skews, translates but he specifically avoids distortion.

His sense of pattern is permutative (like Lego) rather than incrementally evolving (like an M.C.Escher pattern in which a flock of birds become fish). In both spatial and temporal terms, he’s a profoundly Euclidean choreographer – it is a limited palette he’s allowing himself (or by which he is being limited), and this is a very different geometric understanding than that of, for example, a William Forsythe, who habitually wraps movement around intersecting curves, elliptic choreography perhaps, or the funhouse-mirror hyperbolic world of Wayne McGregor.

In strictly dramatic terms, every individual scene mansplains — labouring points already well established and enumerating redundant options: no chair arrives onstage unaccompanied by the premonition that it will tour all corners, visit all cardinal points, and do so in all orientations and rotations. Vandekeybus’s project is not about our holding our attention however — the risk and velocity and blare already compel that — his intent is language-smithing. The method is ingenious. By embedding continual, compulsive permutation everywhere (one dancer’s hair is by turns loose, ponytailed, top knotted and plaited; another wears shorts, skirt, trousers, knickers), he inscribes a clear terrain of possibility and occupies it completely, pleading thereby the generality, economy, and comprehensiveness of his language. This language-buttressing was, I submit, a factor in the viral momentum with which the style exhibited here colonised subsequent imaginations. No wonder, too, that the slower-witted copyists were bamboozled. For what really propels it is not devil-may-care abandon but fastidious analytical calculation.

What the body does not remember is that which it must spontaneously create — such, then, is the conceit. This is, finally, a lie. It is the humanising, idiosyncratic, personal texture and embodied experience with which each of the luminous, heroic, gorgeous nine-strong ensemble specifically inhabits the restless playground of the work which animates it. It is precisely body memory that acts in the hot moment, and not with the permission of a discreet momentary eye-contact before jumping, but in a headlong rush without looking first, in throwing the brick just a bit higher and sooner than expected. It is delight and dare-dealing and it is trust, boundary-pushing, and play. It’s not a bad working definition of love.

2015 swipes history’s panorama past Google-glazed eyes. Time present and time past are both eternally present in time YouTube, and the ramifications for repertoire and history in dance remain work in progress. What the Body Does Not Remember itself remembers a moment now unimaginably remote in time, a time before the body’s conversation with memory became technologised. Perhaps this is what makes it timely: or perhaps it is instructive that Vandekeybus himself nowadays seems more preoccupied with making work for the screen.

HUNT & DARTON CAFE - Photo by Christina Holton

Hunt & Darton: Hunt & Darton Cafe

HUNT & DARTON CAFE - Photo by Christina HoltonBurnished just so by the perfect twilight, Gateway House shimmers silver, like a bolt of bright fish shoaling towards the city. But this is Manchester and the rest of the time, which is all of the time, with only rain and tombstone sky to reflect, it’s a beached carcass rotting down to the ribs. The seedy huddle of shops fringing its belly are off-brand for today’s dynamic city-centre experience and are being excised. The Station Cafe was the first ploughed under by the fundamentalist gentrifiers. It opened all hours, nighthawked by a cast of hookers on fag break and crumpled greybeards. In its place now is a Little Waitrose. The Station Cafe is gone. I grieve.

Hunt & Darton Cafe is a working cafe, vending drinks and food in the setting of a free-form, rolling improvisational, live art cabaret. It’s been catnip for seemingly every festival promoter in the land, providing not only a daytime attraction, but packaging readymade solutions to awkward practicalities like refreshments and bathrooms and… showcasing local artists.

In addition to the drinks and food (excellent – dissonantly so in a work otherwise suspicious of conspicuous proficiency – but if you seek a critic ready to chide a show for its too-delicious cake, Reader, surf on, I am not he) a three-course set menu of short routines is available for performance table-side. A meal might comprise Delia Dance (teetering table aerobics), Laughs (an unnerving safari through the possibilities of performed laughter), and for dessert, Africa (a pastiche of African dance so cringe-provoking that I never see the ending, involuntarily averting my eyes every time). This is by no means virgin territory, but what Duckie dished up as fetishy divine decadence, Hunt and Darton serve like Les Dawson awarding a Blankety Blank chequebook and pen.

Live art à la mode circa 2015 is a trajectory relentlessly in pursuit of its own centre. As the form seeks shelter in the academy, fashion is mistaken for style, and style misunderstood as a found object. Ubiquitously, the monologue-to-microphone template of stand-up is recycled, comedy optional. This season, bad dancing is trending; bad karaoke is hot; (performed) performed awkwardness is To Die For. It’s over-reading Cafe to claim it as a critique of these à la carte tics, but the genius of the work is that it invents a pretext naturally to serve up a knowing banquet of tropes du jour without necessarily endorsing them: having your cake and, so to speak, selling it, for £3 a slice.

There are three strata to the scenography: anonymous retail unit; signage (Key Stage 1 calligraphy and an F for spelling) on blackboard and cardboard; ornamental chintz of the kind Oxfam shops now politely decline (on ‘Austerity’ theme day, the Staffordshire dogs and china Coldstream Guards are retired and centrepiece of each table is a single unpeeled potato). In sum, the decor and service evokes tea at your nan’s – fussed over but with a hint of disapproval stiffening the indulgence – that is, if your nan happens to be Carmen Miranda. Hunt and Darton, proprietors, model matching uniforms like the Honolulu chapter of Pussy Riot: sensible shoes; smock dresses in a Magic-Eye pineapple print; and, worn as a fascinator, the spiky topmost third of a fresh pineapple. Except on ‘Broccoli’ days, naturally.

A calendar of themes (‘Do it Yourself’, ‘Health and Safety’, ‘Social Media’), local performers as ‘guest waiters’ (from Eggs Collective as Robert Palmer girls pickled in WKD to Pigeon Theatre conducting experiments in olfaction), and a daily schedule (each day anticlimaxes at 18:30 with Unhappy Hour) are the flywheel that keeps the machine throbbing, but in practice, everything is geared to making space for spontaneous… not magic, but its precise inverse: abracadabra! ladies and gentlemen – the resolutely ordinary.

Three vignettes to encapsulate three weeks’ action:

Hunt flourishes a gleaming salver heaped with Polos. ‘Mint, sir?’ she offers, appending the existential critique ‘They’re the one with the hole, I’m afraid.’

Guest waiters Eggs Collective are massaging us out of Unhappy Hour with a lairy tribute to Petula Clarke. ‘Wait wait wait!’ Sara (Cocker) is animated. ‘How about instead of Downtown we do it as… Hunt and Dar-ton?’ The spontaneous result is euphoric, oddly affecting and only improved by the car crash lack of consensus of on how practically to accommodate the first two syllables.

‘Welcome to the cafe – you look good in it. How’s your day been?’ I lament the presence in town of an EDL rally. ‘Well, what we do when somebody’s having a bad day is we get all the dogs in the cafe and…’ Hunt assembles a motley chorus of china dogs on the table facing me. The fixed stare of sixty glazed pupils is deeply troubling and I confess as much. Hunt nods understandingly, turns them around one by one so that we are all – the dogs and I – gazing together towards the dessert table. ‘Better now?’ And it is.

The last in particular is paradigmatic: Hunt and Darton’s is, par excellence, a theatre of inadequate solutions. The gap between reality and our weapons is the work’s defining motif, by turns comedic and heartbreaking.

Over the run, we meet many Dartons: Sue ‘Darton’ Hurst (brilliantly truculent, with a pout exactly locating the midpoint between the younger Bardot and the elder Steptoe), Rachel ‘Darton’ Porter (who can tell a story about wetting the bed like she’s Liza Minnelli regaling An Audience With…), Rachel ‘Darton’ Gammon (all the bathetic dying-swan fall of Tony Hancock, which is even more impressive given how drunk she is), and ‘Classic’ Holly Darton (an Enid Blyton heroine, brimming with pluck and school spirit). On the level of chemistry, the work is most dangerous with the latter. The body language rhymes, the double-dares spiral, the backchat crackles. As the duo re-create highlights from their back catalogue, a classic status negotiation unfolds, Darton fastidiously stooping from dignity, Hunt clambering up toward it.

‘Hunt,’ Darton says, ‘is hardcore.’ Impossible to disagree – and not just for her stamina, or the warmth and selflessness with which as facilitator she tilts both limelight and laughs to everyone else – Jenny Hunt’s performance persona, Hunt, is a tightrope walk in its own right. ‘This is from It’s a Shitter, the series of poems I’m working on: It’s a shitter / When you’re still paying for the wedding / And the marriage is over.’ Cafe habituées learn to flinch when Hunt splits a bottle with the muse, Euterpe. Like a sneeze, the pleasure is the fizzy shudder afterward, the uncurling of the toes. Like a sneeze, you might find your eyes watery. Wise and baffled, sad and complicated, fearless and pitilessly funny, it is a glorious omnishambles of a performance.

Cafe works because it reconciles the performed and the everyday by insisting on their inseparability: Customers arrive bringing wildly varying frames of reference but the artists commendably refuse to be drawn into operating in multiple levels at the same time. The joke isn’t on punters who aren’t in on the ‘art’ frame – because this isn’t a joke, but a humane collaboration with its audience. As a single serving, Cafe delights audiences of all stripes – families, tourists, every performer within a 50 mile radius, all the fauna of the city (two senior ladies clutching Coronation Street Tour carrier bags sit next to me one day, shaking with laughter, wiping tears from each other’s cheeks at Hunt’s most off-colour poetry) but over three weeks, for a growing audience who begin appearing every night, the work takes on a richer life as epic.

In A Certain Level of Denial, Karen Finley describes climbing a mountain to throw a handful of sequins into the wind, ‘a small thing that makes the world better’. Hunt & Darton Cafe is such a handful of sequins: windblown, twinkling and melancholy. If it is slight, it is so only because its central concern is the centrality of the slight.

The ongoing durational art/life slow-crash of Station Approach delivers a stunning coup-de-thêatre when, in Cafe‘s final week, the adjacent unit opens as… a cafe, and not a pop up, the permanent kind that will endure forever as long as man craves craft ale and pulled pork. They have Venetian blinds and twee decor, they have blackboard signage and so-bad-its-nearly-good music, but their customers clump in lonely ones and twos like a waiting room annexe. Nobody is wearing fruit, playing Blue Riband Jenga or serenading a neighbouring table with Wuthering Heights. Hunt & Darton Cafe is gone. I grieve.

ANU Productions: Angel Meadow

ANU Productions - Angel Meadow - Photo Graeme CooperAdvice for readers considering visiting Angel Meadow: do; have a drink first; get stuck in; read no further, the following contains spoilers.

Manchester was built by the Irish, both the bricks and the soul. How else does a city learn so many sweetly sad songs? Fitting, then, that Dublin’s ANU Productions, fast building a reputation over the water for hard-hitting, site-responsive work – notably the award-winning Laundry (excavating Dublin’s Magdalene Convent) and World’s End Lane (the city’s Monto red light district) – should inaugurate the debut season of the city’s new arts megaplex, HOME.

Angel Meadow is sited – embedded – in the crumbling Edinburgh Castle public house (‘pub games’, proposes a hoarding in peeling gilt; ‘dangerous building’, ‘fragile roof’, ‘sudden drop’, caution others) – not in fact in notorious Victorian sinkpit Angel Meadow but neighbouring Ancoats, barely more salubrious and also heavily settled (in the sense of ‘sinking to the bottom’) by Irish refugees fleeing the famine of the 1850s. The piece immerses us in (at least) two stories coughed from the black lungs of this building’s particular past: the first, a fictionalised portrait of historically-attested resident Hannah-Mae, her gangland milieu and bloody murder; the second a relentless, simmering pressure-build anticipating the confrontation between rival soccer firms, inspired by events a decade ago which closed it.

These inciting histories – sensitively chosen, welcome relief from the hackneyed local history textbook staples brochure and programme nevertheless misleadingly shill – are separated by 150 years, and the piece understands history as chronic wound. This is a ghost-choked world in which the past is not just backstory to today’s episode (‘Previously, in Angel Meadow…’), but something stiflingly unresolved, inescapably revenant and bruising for a fight. Place is a palimpsest, skin perfunctorily scraped – but not clean – between one blotted life story and the next, the ink bleeding. Characters stare shell-shocked through each other as if superimposed from different eras; between rooms, a century might pass. Images of suspension and fixity infest: pinned butterflies, taxidermy, hung sides of meat, Christmas dinner in a room of stopped clocks. The dress is contemporary, but only as the least conspicuous option for a piece enacted never and forever.

The stories play out over a (hectic) hour duration, with a fresh audience of eight entering half-hourly. For the first half hour, you’re frequently on your own or with one or two others, led (shoved, cajoled, dragged bodily) through a warren of rooms and a montage of fragmentary vignettes, before finally regrouping for the extended climax. The interlacing of two staggered audiences and performances is not only a tour de force of engineering, it textures the whole piece: The building is constantly crowded, with glimpses of timeshifted events, and concurrent scenes audible through the thin walls.

The initiatory frame story is a sales visit to a new property development – ‘Angel Meadow’, slick logo and all – casting the audience as culture vulture prospective buyers: ‘Just over there,’ coos our guide breathlessly, ‘is the church where Kenneth Branagh did Macbeth!’ This is not just plausible, and prescient of the pub’s likely fate, but pre-emptively darts the elephant in the room – class-tourism (what’s a nice audience like us doing in a place like this?) – and moreover takes a hefty bite out of the hand that feeds it, HOME itself being a beachhead in the gentrification of another newly-rebranded slum. This is how we like our art served round here: with piss and vinegar. Bravo.

The fragmentary narrative mode ensures visitors will disagree about what they witness, and that much goes unexplained. For me, the specifically Irish context recedes. I read the show that unfolds in my subjective slice through the universes of parallel Angel Meadows as an essay in how underdog snarls at underdog, with the women wearing the bloodiest teethmarks. Your mileage may vary.

A partial inventory of scenes:

– Dressing at a table of dingy mirrors, a woman evokes the Devil (‘Do you believe in him? I’ve seen him. Do you believe me?’) and the sensation of suicide by ingesting bleach – pang by pang, and at first hand.
– In a freezing meat locker, an amped-up hooligan awaits the kickoff.
– A boxer wraps bloody fists in a straw-strewn bare-knuckle pit. He assumes the low guard of a man willing to take any number of hits as long as he lands one back.
– A man in a pig mask (the Devil after all?) dances an unconscious woman through an erotic tender duet, all the more affecting for being danced by non-dancers. He feeds her shots of bleach throughout.

Scenographer Owen Bass’s installation cycle imagines the building as a magic realist trade show for the despair industry – atomically mimetic, globally hallucinatory. Where this ignites, it scorches (Hannah hesitates, looking for the perfect pick from the jukebox; one in a thousand visitors will have noticed that the scores of buttons are all neatly labelled with the same song), but in a scene only glimpsed it risks feeling distractingly eclectic (The turf-floored room? What was in the bath?).

Angel Meadow sometimes forgets that it is teaching its language at the same time as speaking it. Should I interrupt? Should I dance? Should I down that shot glass of bleach? This brave, incandescent ensemble would clearly handle – enjoy – anything I could throw at them, but such awareness crystallises only gradually. Moreover, the interactions thrust upon the audience may be mildly uncomfortable – oil a boxer’s back, tell me your name, take your belt off, (I barrel into the next scene still hauling my trousers up) – but are always circumscribed and, on the scale of the whole piece, consequence-free. It’s telling that the most open-ended scene, the first in which I find my feet and real rapport, comes to be the emotional heart of my experience.

Ejected from the Castle, fleeing the self-immolatory final catastrophe, my audience huddles on the pavement post-show, traumatised, not ready to go home – evidence of the emotional wallop of the piece, but also of something more problematic. Angel Meadow‘s ubiquitous method is to appear to endow its audience with a latitude for action it actually withholds. My awkwardness, my hesitation – the alchemy of the piece is to sculpt and reforge these into shame and complicity (the moment where Laura Murray as Angel – Audrey Hepburn embalmed in grief and Jameson – smiles and in a whisper forgives me for not knowing how to help her still smarts) but this is psychological three-card monte. ANU’s craft is, par excellence, manipulation – overt (the electricity of a character pressed close) and occult (the arsenal of choreographed mechanical stressors: geographical disorientation, startles, constant hurry). The piece manufactures my response indifferent to my consent: nasty means to evoke a nasty world. It’s a hell of a show, but ultimately I am uneasy whose political interests it serves to teach an audience helplessness in the face of horror.

Earthfall, Chelsea Hotel

Earthfall: Chelsea Hotel

Earthfall, Chelsea Hotel

Having partied their fifteen minutes at Warhol’s Silver Factory (The Factory, 2010), Earthfall’s latest takes them downtown to that other hub of New York 60s bohemia, the much-storied Chelsea Hotel. The second law of rock’n’roll thermodynamics states that lived history and myth, once mixed, cannot be un-mixed and the piece is preoccupied with strategies for inhabiting the rented, provisional, pre-furnished space of received mythologies (romance, rebellion, sex, drugs, etc) and calibrating just how much it’s cool to worry about the bloodstains former residents have left on the carpet. Chelsea Hotel is, in several senses, about vacancy.

The central vacancy is narrative. This is a show pantingly concupiscent for story… in the same breath as it chastely disavows its necessity or even possibility. Story smokily haunts every interstice, every hallway and lift shaft of the piece, but the plot is sedimentary rather than summational: hotels in general, and this one most especially, are spaces where fragments of many stories intersect without finding resolution. Scene by scene, scenario (a strait-laced couple arrive at the Chelsea unawares, a resident is erotically obsessed with a neighbour, etc) is in constant conference with a palimpsest of famous-resident myth. Minxy hints are scattered throughout that the action is underpinned by precise incidents, but the apparatus required to decode specifics is withheld. Context shifts tectonically in a fraught boy-girl duet, when an aside names the female partner Nancy – but only for those who know how the tragedy of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen played out in a Chelsea bathroom. Such crumb trails seem calculated to cleave the audience by their subjective frames of reference (and familiarity with the stories of Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dylan Thomas et al), and one clear faultline is generational: the Chelsea Hotel mythography arrives ready-made and pre-sold to the generation of the artistic directors, less so to the performers and still less the predominantly student-age crowd.

The piece is, then, resolutely an open text and cultivates distraction as a method. Events parallel to the main action are constantly in motion: an out-of-play character singing along to the soundtrack, a blink and you miss it eye contact from the shadows, a leg idly swung. The composition is always for four bodies – even when three of them are ‘offstage’ on stage – and never relaxes its syntactical choreographing of the central and the peripheral. The eye is encouraged to prospect for detail and rewarded generously.

The original score, a deft essay in the non-specifically familiar, structures the 70 minutes explicitly as an album of 3-6 minute numbers, and the presence of musicians Frank Naughton, Sion Orgon and Felix Otaola on stage is decisive. Diffident despite the leather trousers, sheltering behind the brim of a cowboy hat, the musicians bring a provocative contrast in concentration and embodiment, and if the piece hasn’t quite worked out their physical relationship as bodies on stage with the dancers, this turns out to be a welcome injection of serendipity. One of the most satisfying moments was the fortuitous recapitulation of a centre stage duet of mutual obstruction when a third dancer, unlit, upstage, had to dodge around a musician whose back was turned, his attention absorbed in playing.

Stage right to left, you’re looking at: an iron bedstead, a chair, a refrigerator, four chairs around a table. Mike Brookes’ set aggressively resists the decorative, but is a self-effacing masterclass in the creation of space for dancing. His wilfully tough-on-the-eye jumble of down-at-heel furniture shatters the yawning Quays Theatre space into tiered sub-stages crackling with energy, without needing to be more forthcoming about the specifics of what and where. This is representative of a mise-en-scene which forgoes conspicuous theatrical syntax (no scene changes, no wings, only the most tactful shifts of lighting) and the pictorial (although unfortunate exemption is granted to the projected imagery) and urges us to believe that the dancers conjure their effects from thin air. This is artifice, a pose, but it’s endearing to see a show so in love with its cast.

This is clearly requited by the performers, who hurl themselves at it headlong. Much is made of the negotiations between persona and autobiography co-inhabiting a body, and if the cast look too vigorous and fresh-faced altogether to convince in the sleazier scenes this itself becomes content, myth exposed as a sometimes ill-fitting hand-me-down. Necessarily, physical type and costuming limn character in broad strokes and the piece isn’t above relying on device – unisons to contrast, for example the articulate gossamer line of Jessica Haener against Rosalind Haf Brooks’ tensile attack, but there is also a richness of playful detail – the men’s costumes need no further differentiation than rodeo boots versus battered Cons.

Leonard Cohen’s lyric from Chelsea Hotel #2 proposes a workable synopsis of the genre-defining trope of dance theatre: ‘I need you. / I don’t need you. / I need you. / I don’t need you. / And all that jiving around.’ If you hug me, be warned that I will plié out from under your embrace; when you duck the arm with which I block your way, you’ll oblige me to grab for your heels – don’t worry, what we have here is legally marketable as dance theatre – but the company work hard to make this pre-chewed vocabulary tell. Alex Marshall Parsons’ character may be the only one surprised when, as he throws himself again and again to the ground, Sebastian Langueneur intervenes to catch him, but on these specific bodies, in this specific moment, it is fresh, tender and affecting. Elsewhere, the vocabulary is pleasingly 2013-idiom contemporary, all graphic, rippling Schechteresque silhouettes, candidly in dialogue with vernacular movement, and happiest at full pelt.

There is something self-serving about embracing lack of clarity as an artistic virtue, but Chelsea Hotel sets out to evoke an atmosphere, and on these terms is a woozy success, an indistinct but intoxicating cloud of patchouli and sweat. The game of three-card monte, playing myth off against biography and fiction delegates meaning-making (indeed, sense-making) to the audience, and its tricksy solicitation to over-read (Is that a sneer, or a Sid Vicious sneer? Is that a Manzarek organ tone or just a preset?) is an un-worked-for way to accrue meaning… but then that’s rock’n’roll, baby.

Hannah Silva, The Disappearance of Sadie Jones

Hannah Silva: The Disappearance of Sadie Jones

Hannah Silva, The Disappearance of Sadie Jones

The Disappearance of Sadie Jones enacts the Newton’s cradle mutual rebound between the eponymous heroine’s mental illness and the reality around her. The form is kaleidoscopic, the chronology dislocated, the viewpoint subjective, and the world artfully disorientating. The characters of Sadie’s sister and lover drift through other identities, archetypal (‘the dead’), allegorical (a swindling barrow boy) and historical (her parents), frequently stepping apart from the action as narrator or chorus.

The motor of this is the shattered verse of Hannah Silva’s script – ‘libretto’, more precisely – meticulously staged by the writer herself as an intricate suite of fugues in three voices. In performance, the spartan text is conjured into shimmering gamelan lushness, interleaved layers pivoting about shared catchwords, superimposed, staggered, coalescing into riffs and refrains then diverging via counterpoint into cacophony. Silva develops this voice from the queasy admixture of the delusional and the everyday with which the piece opens so that, over the course of the 80 minutes, the strands untwist into one register that is fully naturalistic and another which has imploded into pre-articulate rhythmic syllables and yells, before, like the chronology, the two are neatly re-braided into a loop. The ensemble’s handling of this impossible material is virtuosic, shading both tiny naturalistic detail and jagged expressionist sprechgesang, sometimes manipulating the text at arm’s length like a puppet made of words, sometimes inhabiting it as passionately as scripture. An enterprising – and fearless – radio commissioning editor would not have to dig far to find treasure here.

The physical staging is theatrically literate: Lecoq via Complicité; Berkoff via Frantic; DV8 and Pina Bausch swigged straight from the bottle. Nothing about it is careless or slipshod, but this visual-physical language and the text don’t always quite succeed in dancing together. Conspicuously, the best moments of physical theatre are silent, the most telling text delivered in stillness.

From title to curtain, Sadie is the focal character – her surname, indeed, a hint to read her as an Everywoman – but this is an ensemble piece with only starring roles, and all three performers rise to its substantial demands. Elizabeth Crarer, as Sadie’s sister, is as cut-glass, as soothing and fragile as the whiskey glass to which she frequently resorts; Alan Humphreys as Sadie’s lover, as tightly-buttoned as his defining shiny suit jacket; Stephanie Greer’s Sadie is – like the decal on the mug she nurses habitually – a plait-haired La Calavera Catrina, the dapper skeleton of the Dia de los Muertos. Her facial expressions (she might plausibly have been the model for Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride) are huge, and when she flashes from a smile to eerie blankness, it’s like the lights have dipped.

That each character comes equipped with a talismanic prop is thoroughly representative of the mise-en-scène, which is a study in the engraving of meaning into small details. The principle – an engagingly literal cross-application of the compositional strategy which underpins the text – is to forage among the mundane and naturalistic for small highly tactile everyday textures (apples, a Pyrex bowl, a tap, rough wooden crates), and then to fling them into greatly more abstract theatrical space, where the text can pump signification into them. Hard not to love a show which painstakingly enrobes a bowl of Cheerios as a metaphor for a comforting but brittle inauthenticity. The most striking image – a meal table vanitas banquet of apples and bones – provides a commentary on its own method, punningly, a nature morte, objects displayed to be decoded.

Designer Fiona Chivers’ hard-working set piece is a breakfast bar, made of slabs of concrete and unfinished wood, which alludes to banal Elle Deco chic but does symbolic duty as catafalque, podium, pulpit, bathroom, bed, table, market stall, chalkboard and gravestone. By turns it is sat, stood, and lain upon, beside and beneath, as well as spun round, and shuttled from one end of the stage to the other. There is something of the show pony about this, but such ingenuity is entitled to prance a little.

Words are summoned from fresh air and evaporate back thence; properties accumulate stubbornly. Once a bowl of spilled cereal has had its close up, Mr DeMille, it lurks in vision, mugging and waving to camera over the shoulders of the action. Even the most cathected mess remains nevertheless, a mess, and the detritus of discarded props with which the stage is cluttered by the end is an encumbrance the text would never be permitted. To be sure, it’s iconic of disorder, but visually cliché and symbolically reductive compared to the nuance with which the words crackle. In the meeting of the object and the voice, Silva the poet and Silva the director’s interests sometimes conflict, and she decides in favour of the poetry. The earthbound concreteness of the physical emphasises the fleetness of the poetry precisely by lagging behind its temporal and spatial zigzags, but service of the text in this respect isn’t necessarily service of the piece.

Staging mental illness is a Faustian bargain: human compassion jostles with the carny’s prurience. From Euripides to Homeland, the mad woman has been reliably bankable dramatic currency, but the politics of this spectacle are fraught. No doubt everyone’s heart here is in the right place, but it is nevertheless not unproblematic to depict a (young, beautiful) doomed young woman’s deliverance from mental illness by death. Sadie is vivid and compelling and barely held to account for the havoc wrought around her: she is exonerated by the beauty and poetry of her world. The production as a whole attempts the same feat. The Strindbergian dream play format is no longer a shock, but a knowing negotiation with theatrical history. It is no longer a radical insight that psychosis and language are entwined, but it’s still a spectacular premise for art-making. The Disappearance of Sadie Jones is a beautiful theatrical object, but the acrobatics of the formal and linguistic jeux d’esprit, the sophisticated theatricality, are gorgeous in ways I suspect first-hand experience of psychosis almost certainly isn’t.