Lights, camera, action! Well, not quite – no cameras involved, although The Capital is filmic in feel.
At first there is an empty stage, the screen at the back bathed in an icy blue light. There’s a whirring noise, and the two ‘travelators’ on the stage – walkways or conveyer belts that can move in either direction, at varying speeds – kick into action. Moving from left to right come a succession of chairs. How many? We never see more than five at any one time. Is someone whizzing around the back, creating an illusion of dozens of chairs travelling solemnly one by one, sensibly upright and facing forward? The soundscape is an enjoyably echo-y snare drum beat. There’s new things happening with the chairs. Sometimes they’re facing backwards, or facing each other, in conversation. Sometimes a little askew, sometimes a gap where a chair should be, and then an upside-down chair. I like the chairs, I could watch them forever.
The soundscape changes, becomes upbeat, a groovy dance track. There are people, moving right to left, against the grain. One, two, three, four, five of them. Some walking in their own space, ignoring passers-by, others acknowledging they are overtaking, or being left behind. The travelators are moving the opposite way to the walking, which makes for some interesting effects: people who were progressing forward stand still and are suddenly moving backwards, out of vision – like figures on a station platform viewed from a moving train.
Much of the show plays with the endless possibilities offered by these walkways, and the moving images created by placing people and objects on them – a kind of evolving sculpture, illuminated by a constantly changing wash of onscreen coloured light (blues, greens, reds). A standard lamp moves majestically across the back travelator. A stepladder with a person lying at its feet travels the other way. An older man (the always riveting to watch Gerard Bell) stands still on the front walkway as it moves painfully slowly from right to left – one of my favourite scenes in the show. In these scenes, we construct our own narratives, in the best traditions of physical/visual theatre.
But there is another modus operandi in interspersed scenes – a playing out of theatrical vignettes, with some characters and stories recurring throughout the piece. So, a scene at an airport luggage conveyor belt (an obvious option for the travelators, but it works well, so why not?) gives us small, passing stories of waiting and meeting and greeting, with one character emerging as the protagonist: someone we gather has no one to meet her and is at a loss in the big city by herself. She is dark-skinned and wearing a headscarf, and it seems that she is a migrant coming to make a new life for herself, for reasons unknown. We meet her later wandering the streets with a map, waiting in line to be interviewed, working on a production line. In other small storylines, we encounter a harassed business man and his pregnant wife, an architect and her blueprints, numerous lines of people waiting on chairs (doctors surgeries, hospital waiting rooms, job centres?), various rough sleepers, and a spattering of streetwise teens. A city full of social inequalities is presented, but nothing much seems to be being said about it all, and none of the stories seem to reach any sort of resolution, which is a little frustrating. But perhaps that’s the point. In the post-show discussion, director James Yarker talks very eloquently of the constantly evolving city landscape of small stories that we never really experience in any way other than as passing moments, other people bit-part players in our lives, and speaks also of wanting to portray the choreography of rich and poor stepping over and around each other. So a play full of unfinished histories is, it would seem, the intention.
There is also a third way that emerges in a few scenes – somewhere in between the pure narrative of visual image and the more enforced storytelling of theatre. There is, for example, a lovely scene in which a hurrying woman becomes burdened down by flowers, coffee cup, designer clothes, baby carriage, boxed gifts, and even a husband – overburdened to the point of abandoning all.
Most of my favourite scenes are the simplest, relying on one good strong visual image – for example, a white woman and a black woman, both in business suits, walk along at equal pace. But the black woman’s path is constantly barred by chairs thrown in her way. She moves each chair, and hurries to keep up with her colleague, but gets left behind. Simple, strong, physical storytelling. The scenes that involve supposedly naturalistic encounters, with dialogue vocalised that is not intended to be heard – around a kitchen table or in an office, say – work far less well. And it must be said that the two men – the aforementioned Gerard Bell, and Stan’s Cafe associate director Craig Stephens – display the mime/physical theatre experience needed to pull off these word-free moments of drama, thus standing out above the three much younger women performers, who are great on the big brush strokes but are less at ease with the subtler touches (there is a fair amount of over-acting and unnecessary gesturing at times). Also to say that although it is great to see a culturally diverse cast, I really wanted to see an older woman in the mix…
There are also many times when I long for more breathing space for a passing image. And silence. I long for silence. The relentless, upbeat soundtrack wears me out – kept up non-stop for 90 minutes. Again, that is probably the point – the soundtrack representing the relentless, intrusive noise of city life. But surely cities have quieter, calmer places and moments? I would have enjoyed a more nuanced soundtrack.
At its best, The Capital does feel like one of those City Symphony films by the likes of Vertov and Ruttman, capturing poignant passing images of city life.
But the stated intention – to investigate social inequalities in the city – feels only very lightly touched upon. I end up feeling that the show would be better off losing 30 minutes and focusing on creating a montage of the strongest visual images, as there are so many wonderful moments, without the complicated ‘what’s supposed to be happening here?’ scenes. There’s a great hour-long show in there waiting to be let out!
Featured image (top): photo Graeme Braidwood