What remains after death? Rags, bones, memories, melodies… Ah yes, melodies! Long after the piano lid has been slammed shut for the last time, the notes live on, echoing forever around the great soundbox that is this earthly world.
Grid Iron, the kings and queens of Scottish site-responsive theatre, have created a brand-new promenade piece set in the imposingly sombre antique halls, studies, and stairways of the University’s anatomy department. What Remains is performed by one live performer, David Paul Jones, with a supporting cast of a thousand ghosts and sighs. It could be described as a live horror film – or more precisely, of what might remain of a horror film if you took away the actual film. Remains encountered include the set (or site), the props, the research materials, the instruments that created the score, and of course the music itself. This is presented to us through demented live piano performances by DPJ, playing Gilbert K Prendergast, a concert pianist driven insane by the demands made upon him, and the demands he has made upon himself in his quest for perfection; disembodied fragments of sound that haunt the corridors and stairwells; and spooky moments of musical autonomy, as instruments seem to play themselves. The audience are left to construct their own narrative from the traces they encounter: the recitals, the snatches of music they hear, the letters they read, the rooms furnished or bare, the masks and the mirrors, the bones and the scalpels… And always there is sound, as sound is the heartbeat of the story.
Inspired as it is by the horror genre, with particular reference to films that use Gothic or Romantic music as the emotional driver or to push forward the narrative, it is hardly surprising that there are references galore to pick up on, from Hammer House of Horror’s Fall of the House of Usher, to Vincent Price as Dr Phibes, to Phantom of the Opera. And for anyone of a certain age, the disembodied voice of the piano pushing students further than they can handle has an instant association with the 1950s children’s recording, ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’. What Remains is also inspired, in part, by the life and works of Scriabin, and by other late 19th / early 20th century composers such as Ravel and Mahler. A love of classical music from this era is at the heart of the work, and much of the dramaturgy/scenography of the piece is led by the music.
We start all together in a grand entrance hall, seeing Gilbert give the recital of his life, then are led off in groups (our ‘team’ denoted by musical notes – I was an A Minor). As is usual with Grid Iron, the audience are very tightly managed (no Punchdrunk-style wandering alone here!), and we are carefully guided throughout. Fine for the most part, although I did feel a little hurried occasionally ,and was particularly reluctant to leave a room filled with display cases full of bones, and featuring a pianola playing itself with wild abandon.
Our one performer is often absent – or, at least, not physically present, although his extraordinary and beautiful musical compositions stay with us throughout the journey. Along the way we are drawn into participating in a piano lesson led by a disembodied voice, scared by ominously human-sized bundles crashing from cupboards, put to bed in white satin sleeping bags (a scene I wasn’t entirely convinced by), and enticed up stairwells lit with ghostly blue light, where we are serenaded most wonderfully by Gilbert in nightdress and bloodied mask, giving a heartbreakingly beautiful (whilst simultaneously darkly funny) rendition of an Antony and the Johnsons song, ‘Her Eyes Are Beneath The Ground’.
I’ve been watching, and listening to, David Paul Jones admiringly for many years, ever since his appearance in Grid Iron’s Those Eyes, That Mouth (2003). Since that wonderful debut with the company, he has continued his work as composer, musician, and performer on numerous projects, including the award-winning Devil’s Larder and 2010 Fringe success Barflies. Programme notes tell us that DPJ and Grid Iron’s director Ben Harrison have been conspiring to create this present work ever since they met, and after many false starts and changes of direction, the piece has finally seen the light of day (or the dark of the night, it would perhaps be more appropriate to say). It may have been a long time coming, but it’s great that it’s finally happened. What Remains is very much a showcase of DPJ’s talents and obsessions, drawing on autobiographical material (such as memories of piano lessons on the path to his first career as a concert pianist, and reliving the burning desire to be ever-better), with the physical, visual, musical score lovingly guided and directed by Ben Harrison.
It’s a melee of marvellous sounds and – yes – haunting images; a wonderful marriage of sight and sound – and indeed of site and sound! There’s beauty in the darkness, and humour too. It’s a show that will remain with me a long time, I’m sure.