As we enter the large Upper Hall at Summerhall, we see a man sitting on a perspex cube in the centre of the performance space. At the rear is an enormous screen, and on the screen a succession of names in a large black font on white. Extraordinary names. Snow Trout. Tajikistan Open Fingered Gecko. Bigmouth Rocksnail. The man is making small gestures in response to the names. The snail is pretty easy (antennae!), but some are more challenging – Mediterranean Pillow Coral, for example. There’s a gentle soundscape of bird and insect sounds, rustling leaves, flowing water. We learn that these names are from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ‘red list’ of extinct or soon to be extinct species, currently at 26,000 species but that is deemed a vast underestimate as it only includes known and tracked species.
He’s up and about now, moving around the space, the small gestures becoming grander movements. The names go by, picking up speed, and he responds. He sweeps his arms around him, he runs, he hops, he spins. Now the soundtrack has changed to something more chaotic, the natural sounds mixed with the roar of cars, the sound of breaking glass, a scream: ‘What’s happening?’
What’s happening is that we’re facing the sixth mass extinction phase in planet earth’s history.
Now we hear the sound of storms, a horror-film touch with a discordant organ, jet planes, static/white noise, TV or radio programme audio clips, a male comedian complaining about people who worry about ‘fucking pandas’. The voice of Greta Thunberg rings out loud and clear above the cacophony.
Now the cube is tipped out, pieces of wood and bone clattering out over the stage floor, which now looks like a post-apocalyptic shoreline scattered with the remains of those who no longer exist – perhaps that includes us! The name Shore Plover flashes up. Then, Penitent Mussel. The man becomes the Penitent Mussel, surveying the debris with abject melancholy…
Vigil is created and performed by Tom Bailey, and presented by Mechanimal. Although it is a solo piece, it is the result of a collaboration, with the eight-strong creation team including movement direction and dramaturgy by Philippa Hambly, and additional direction/dramaturgy by Guy Jones. The excellent sound composition is by Andrew Cooke, with projections by Limbic Cinema. Zoologists at UCL are also credited in its making.
All elements of the piece are well thought through, with an excellent relationship between form and content. To honour and embody the species we are losing is a lovely idea – the gentle humour of impersonating snails, frogs and birds adds to the poignancy rather than detracting from the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s a piece in which the scenography is at the heart of the work; and Tom Bailey’s performance is solid, holding the space alone on stage comfortably for an hour.
Of course, there is no happy ending – how could there be – but the ending we get (like the rest of the piece) is beautifully realised and thought provoking.
Vigil is presented by Rose Bruford at Summerhall as part of the Open Minds Open Doors programme.