I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am

Feature in Issue 21-4 | Winter 2009

Dorothy Max Prior goes to the Forest Fringe, Edinburgh 2009.

Forest Fringe was set up ‘to create space in the midst of the Edinburgh festival for artists, directors and writers to play and experiment’, and 2009 saw its third season. There’s been a steady build over three years, with a healthy mix of established artists, presenting works in progress and artists at all stages of development trying out new ideas or experimenting with new ways of working. The sheer volume of work on offer seemed overwhelming at times, the Forest Café a buzzing hive of activity day and night. And this year the festival spread out onto the streets and sites of Edinburgh (Rotozaza’s Wondermart at the supermarket; Home Sweet Home in a shopping centre; Bootworks’ Black Box on the streets). In residence nightly were Little Bulb Theatre, presenting an everchanging version of their new folk-musical, Sporadical – a fine festival romp replete with cardboard props and Am-Dram operatics. Other highlights included a lovely show (presented as a part of a day of work made in Bristol) by young company Tinned Fingers: Our Daddys Ears (sic) featured storytelling in many forms –verbal, visual, physical – with the audience embroiled in the creating of the story (about human identity, and survival), blowing up balloons, operating the CD player, wearing the animal ears…

One of my favourite shows, and one which in many ways epitomises the spirit of the Forest Fringe, was a piece made by Shunt artist Mischa Twitchin in collaboration with Tom Duggan and Tom Lyall – I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am.

We sit in complete darkness (or at least as complete as the Forest Fringe can manage), and we are surrounded by sound. The sound penetrates the darkness, wraps us, comforts and disturbs us, is somehow inside us and outside of us. Schoenberg’s music – degenerate music, as the Nazis would have it – is everywhere, all around us, wonderfully crackly, the early gramophone it is played on adding its own layers to the sound. And those trademark Schoenberg declaimed lyrics… the odd and lovely songs, the melancholy voices of fallen angels. There are other voices too; phrases of spoken language, mostly fast and German, sometimes slow and English; multi-layered, the phrases merging with the music to make a different sort of music. A political rally, raised voices, chanting. Now a gentle voice reflective, musing: ‘I wonder sometimes who I am…’ It’s as if we are listening to one radio broadcast, and there’s at least two others playing at the same time. This feels familiar – I often go to sleep listening to Radio 3… Is there something in the room? It’s hard to tell what’s seen and what’s imagined – in the darkness, imagination and memory merge, ideas are animals. Everything is seen, everything is real. Is this what Schoenberg means by ‘sounds for the eyes’? A ‘transfigured night’. Out of the darkness come flashes of light. A desk lamp switched on/switched off. Illumination: a pair of hands, naked, wringing out their sorrows. Now one hand bare, one hand gloved in black leather; now both hands blood-red. When there’s nothing but the hands, the hands become the face, the body. Later, a burst of flame leaps out of the darkness; surrounded by blackness, it feels like a great conflagration. The destruction of Dresden, Coventry.

Schoenberg, like all who are exiled, sits between cultures. He’s on the edge of the Old and New Worlds. A Romantic and a Modernist. I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am explores the liminal – the point of change between light and dark, between ‘meaning’ and ‘feeling’, between consciousness and unconsciousness. Leaving the performance space, the question to ask is not ‘what does it mean?’ but ‘how do I feel?’ I feel like I’ve been on a journey, that my head has been filled, that I’ve sat and watched pictures flickering in the fire, that I’ve travelled through time, that I’ve made a greater acquaintance with the subject of the piece, Schoenberg.

Artaud talked of making a theatre that honoured the profound, poetic bearing of dreams – I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am comes closer than most to that ideal. A beautiful, entrancing piece that makes colourful pictures with sound, and suggests lost worlds with pictures that we are not sure if we really saw or merely imagined… synaesthesia for the soul.

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-4
p. 27