‘Marooned on a traffic island we can tyrannise ourselves, test our strengths and weaknesses, perhaps come to terms with aspects of our characters to which we have always closed our eyes.’ JG Ballard
The set is a white dance floor – a rectangle, not the whole space – and attached to it, an upright wire fence with a white screen behind it. A fixed, limited space. House lights down, sound up – the immense roar of traffic at high speed. Monochrome projections imply, rather than realistically represent, images of vehicles racing by. Where are we? It could be any big city. Mexico. Sao Paulo. London. Let’s say it’s London. Next to or under the Westway, say.
Crash! Splintered, fragmented sounds. The noise of breaking glass and twisting metal, amplified and distorted, worked into the harsh electronic soundscape. A figure crashes into the space, landing with a great bang on the ground, at first just a bundle of limbs and clothes, black patent stiletto’d legs sticking out at an awkward angle.
The sound is intense, menacing, piercing right through us. Ever-evolving patterns of projected light startle us. The marriage of intense sound and image is reminiscent of the work of Ryoji Ikeda – it is in fact a creation of MHz, Bex Anson and Dav Bernard. The monochrome patterns of projected light are now sometimes slashed with harsh, sickly colours.
The body, in its black coat, and shiny black leggings, twists, turns, stands on its head, legs waving wildly in the air, giving it an odd insect-like appearance. It becomes more definitely a ‘she’ as she turns her distressed face to us, letting out roars of anger and panic. A woman. A young, Black woman. Yes, the gender / age /ethnicity is important to mention. She’s circled in acid yellow and electric blue. She gets up, slipping and sliding and keeling over. She reaches out to the roaring traffic and howls. Eventually, exhausted, defeated, she curls up into a foetal position and sleeps, clutching her handbag and shoes.
Up and at it: the coat is off, the black-and-white checked suit underneath (the pattern cleverly mirroring the wire wall; the suit another symbol of oppression) means business. The shoes are off, and are used to hammer the wire fence, then dug in, lodged into the wire, used as anchors to lever her up into an odd, distorted aerial dance. The colours are now a psychedelic kaleidoscope, indigos and greens and oranges, constantly evolving and changing, stripes, checks, a matrix of lines intersecting.
The electronic noise abates; now it’s beating drums, a jazzy, African edge to the soundscape. A shift in energy. No longer seeing herself as trapped victim, marooned in this abandoned space, the woman has accepted her fate and taken charge of it. She has wrapped a scarf around her head, re-arranged her dreadlocks, stripped down to a black bodysuit, limbs bare. She manoeuvres herself around a big red circular moon projected onto the wire wall, surveying her queendom, looking out at us, fearlessly…
And it is indeed a fearless performance we witness. Dancer/ choreographer Mele Brookes (founder member of the three-woman multidisciplinary collective V/DA) takes no prisoners in her breathtaking interpretation of the metamorphosis from victim to ruler of their own land, as experienced by the architect marooned on a traffic island in JG Ballard’s 1974 novel, Concrete Island. This is not a ‘version of’ it is an ‘inspired by’ – it is by no means a literal interpretation, and knowledge of the book is unnecessary for an appreciation of the show, which stands alone as a brilliant metaphor for isolation and exclusion from mainstream society, and for the taking back of control for the excluded one.
In Void, Ballard’s white, male, middle-aged, successful architect Maitland is replaced by black, female, young, aspiring architect Angela (not that she is ever named in the piece, just in the programme notes). The piece retains Ballard’s original central themes (outsider status, being marooned, fighting to be seen by the world whizzing by, coming to terms with ‘otherness’), layering them with ideas drawn from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercurrents, a study of ‘fugitivity and blackness’.
The result is a an intense, Artaudian theatre of the senses, that reaches out through the bombardment of eye-boggling images and bone-juddering sounds to our intellect and imagination. Would Ballard approve? I like to think he would, very much indeed.
Void is presented by V/DA and MHz in association with Feral, and is part of the Made in Scotland programme at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018.