Author Archives: Carrie Rhys-Davies

Opera for the Unknown Woman

Melanie Wilson: Opera for the Unknown Woman

Imagine you’re visited by an unearthly power that tells you that three hundred years from now, following the failure of the world’s economies and devastation caused by climate change, the only hope for the continuation of human life rests with one young woman. Aphra’s fate is sealed: in two weeks’ time she will slip, fall into a flooded river and die. That is, unless you act now. You can stop this from happening. You have agency in the universe’s destiny. This is the position that ten women find themselves in at the start of Melanie Wilson’s new sci-fi opera. What follows is their attempt to hear this call to arms for what it is and work out how to respond, in a race against time and the shrinking window of opportunity to save Aphra’s life.

To call it an opera is perhaps a little misleading. Co-composed by Wilson and Katarina Glowicka, the score is more episodic than a cogent whole, but with a persistent striving to elicit harmony, rhythm and choral richness from discordance. The piece does borrow opera’s often heightened quality, though, and Wilson’s culturally diverse ensemble, gifted with some extraordinary voices whose individuality is celebrated in some virtuosic arias, moves about the stage like planets orbiting an invisible sun. The piece shifts between this convocation’s highly stylised, impassioned, sometimes searching, sometimes declamatory dialogue and the more naturalistic narrative of Aphra, who, in a warm and engaging performance by Kate Huggett, sweet-voiced, gamine, vulnerable yet resilient, is perhaps more accessible to us than our contemporaries who are called upon to save her life.

Visually, it’s marvellous. Fly Davis has created a high curtained semi-circular chamber, which, flooded with Will Duke’s vivid projection design that fluidly segues between swirling galaxies, ravaged landscapes and text, is almost as immersive as a 3D cinema experience. High in the centre of this curtain is a circular pod, part Aphra’s weather station refuge, part sun, part crystal ball.

The piece relies on some familiar sci-fi tropes: ethereal polyphonic soundscapes tell us we’re in space; moony shimmering faces communicating in remote, distorted voices are the unearthly powers; and Aphra, kitted out in the obligatory combats, spends a lot of time peering at charts and recording a log. And the idea isn’t new either: that, in Wilson’s words, female stewardship can be the ‘arrowhead of change’. The call to arms is a call to work with what exists – ‘small acts of affinity and resistance’, to see ourselves differently, to be unafraid to speak out. The piece’s ambitious attempt, it seems to me, is to enable a different mode of conversation, to harness a different form of attention to what it goes without saying are vastly important ideas. And it seems to be trying to perform the alternative way of being that it proposes – to inhabit a space that’s simultaneously powerful and gentle, clear and complex.

However, whilst the message itself is unapologetically explicit, the piece nevertheless seems cautious about how to position itself. In the programme notes, Wilson writes that in the future world of the show ‘feminists are men as well as women’, but then goes on to say: ‘This opera focuses on women, though,’ in what seems an attempt to appease both those who would celebrate and those who would revile its overt feminism. I’m curious about this peculiar equivocation, and I’m also curious about my need for the piece to be somehow stronger, to be irresistible in its challenge. What’s going on when we can see very clearly what a piece is asking of us, when we agree with what it’s asking of us, and we still say, ‘Ask it better’? Opera for the Unknown Woman may be flawed, but those flaws seem to manifest something of the difficulty of speaking simply and directly when the stakes are so high and when we appear so determined to listen only on our own terms.

Theaster Gates - Sanctum - Photo by Max McClure

Theaster Gates: Sanctum

Theaster Gates - Sanctum - Photo by Max McClureIt’s late afternoon on one of those early November days when it’s as if the sun has decided to stay in bed under the covers. It’s unseasonably warm, the air is damp and a few leaves hang on the trees like decorations. I’m on my way to Sanctum, Theaster Gates’s first public project in the UK, produced by Situations and MAYK as part of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital. In a purpose-built temporary performance space in the bombed out shell of Temple Church in Bristol’s Old City, Sanctum offers a continuous programme of sound for twenty four hours a day over twenty four days, sustained by more than one thousand performers, musicians and bands. ‘Hear the city like never before,’ says the publicity.

The programme is a secret. You turn up and it’s pot luck. It might be the Salvation Army. It might be a vocal group. A rock band. A performance poet. I spent several hours in Sanctum, and this is an attempt to capture that experience.

People wander in and out, sit or stand, still wearing their coats and hats. Some chat, some study their phones, others hold paper cups of coffee in their gloved hands or eat from foil wrappers. One woman has brought her knitting. On one of the low wooden dais to the side of the area where most of the sound happens, a young man is changing a baby. His partner appears at his hip, slips her arm around his waist and kisses him on the head.

I’m sitting on the wooden floor, tucked under the eaves. Constructed out of reclaimed materials from across Bristol, it’s a beautiful space that feels at once new, but also like it’s been here for a long time. Whilst not heated, it nevertheless feels warm, its slender rafters and sturdy joists lit with the colours of autumn. And it is fragrant – there’s an earthy, aromatic cedar wood smell on the air. Out of the slanting panes over my shoulder I can see the arches of Temple Church’s bombed out windows, and beyond them the latticework of trees against the sky.  At its edges there are signs of its recent construction and of the outside having made its way in – sawdust, stray screws, leaf litter. It feels interior, an underside. It feels like we’ve come through and into somewhere and something.

Sleepdogs are on. Stooped over their gadgets and almost off stage, they’re live-mixing something like a score that’s mutating and scattering. I think I hear the whinny of a horse and the blast of a machine gun, but I can’t be sure. Jump cuts, arrhythmia, skipped beats. An image comes to me of a colourful bird, frightened up into the air with feathers flying. Sounds layered on sounds, images on images. In the distance a celebration or a riot.

People come and go, stay as long as they can or as they want, choose to be here for a time. Just outside the tall double doors one of the production staff wearing a big jacket and a woolly hat is shifting from foot to foot and forking around in a pot of something hot.

We’re on the coast, in the city and in a forest. It’s like hearing in all dimensions at once and it’s like finding the music in sound. It’s sound like life going on somewhere else right now. The film it gives you is all your own.

People enter, bright-eyed from the outside, look curiously about and settle just inside the entrance, their arms folded or their hands in their pockets.

Next up is spoken word artist Akashic Roots and I struggle to make the adjustment to hearing words. Sometimes language can seem so intent on telling, when sound prefers to suggest. The compulsive internal rhymes, self-interruptions and re-qualifications which are the spoken word artist’s stock in trade present one of those jolting juxtapositions in which Sanctum specialises. He cries: ‘Scream out loud because you’re an animal,’ and people do.

Audrey and Sarah give us acapella folk songs in two-part harmonies. They say: ‘We enjoy singing for our own pleasure.’ Dressed all in black and slightly nervous, they smile at each other as they find their way through their songs, their bodies swaying as they breathe into the melodies. They clear their throats and swig from plastic water bottles. They make no promises and we have no expectations. It seems like this is a place where performer and audience are the same thing; everyone brings themselves and that’s enough.

Stereocilia is one man and his electric guitar and lots of pedals. He says ‘Stereocilia’ once before he starts and then ‘Stereocilia’ once more at the end of his set. His brow furrowed, he rocks forward and back on one foot, working closely at the strings, endlessly looping his strumming so that it becomes a massive echo chamber for itself. It’s all swells and reverb and it feels like his own intensely private experience. Meanwhile to one side of the stage the next act, still wearing their coats, are setting up a drum kit and assembling a pair of saxophones.

The chipper, fresh-faced frontman of Schoolboy’s Death Trio bounces into the space wearing a kind of academic gown in gold, red and black. It’s sort of punk Harry Potter. There’s an alto sax round his neck and his long hair is in a rough ponytail. His bandmates on drums, bass and tabla are wearing armbands emblazoned with ‘SDT’. They play funk crossed with spoken word and all the songs seem to be called things like Sex Blood Money Power.

People enter, settle for a few minutes or longer, stay.

People come and go and some come back.

It’s complicated, if you think about it, to decide to go and see a show or go to a gig. There’s all this stuff to navigate: where it is, what times it starts, how much it costs – let alone who’s performing, where you heard about it, how it’s described, etc… It seems to me that part of the effect of Sanctum is to disrupt all these things – let’s call them cultural trig points – with the result that we are able to think anew about how and why we choose to engage with the public manifestation of each other’s creativity. But to what end?

For me, the removal of these conventional frameworks has the ability to subtly but radically alter how we’re present at, for instance, a gig. A week ago I went to see Theaster Gates at St George’s, a music venue in Bristol. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything advertising the evening kept its cards close to its chest. In the event, we were presented with a performance by Gates, in which he sang all the hymns he could remember. It was challenging, and some people walked. If they’d stayed, they’d have heard Gates go on to resist attempts to elicit from him what Sanctum was ‘about’ and make a plea for keeping things complicated. It seems to me that one way to experience Gates’ performance was in dialogue with what was happening across town at Sanctum. Sanctum’s achievement, it seems to me, notwithstanding the extraordinary logistical feat it represents, is that it quite explicitly invites reflection on the gift exchange of expression and attention that occurs when we commit to time in each other’s company at a performance, and it asks us to allow for the possibility that this experience – wherever, whenever and with whomever it occurs – might be much bigger and more powerful than we can imagine.

Lhomme de Boue

Nathan Israël & Luna Rousseau: L’Homme de Boue

Lhomme de BouePresented at the Wickham as part of Bristol’s inaugural biennial festival of circus performance, Circus City, L’Homme de Boue (The Mud Man) is a collaboration between French artists Nathan Israël and Luna Rousseau, and one of a handful of shows from outside the UK bringing a distinctively European sensibility to the festival. We perhaps see more circus shows that are about the skills first and foremost, but in this unusual and compelling one-man performance, the skill – in this case juggling with clubs – plays second fiddle to the piece’s explicitly existential preoccupations.

Naked except for a pair of tiny grey boxer shorts, Israël stands before us on a circular playing space covered with clay in various states of wetness. There are a few boulder-sized hunks distributed about, and a clutch of white juggling clubs is propped against one of them. A serious-seeming, thick-set man, Israël looks more like a rugby player than a circus artist, and when he takes up the clubs and begins to juggle, it has all the ritual of the haka, the slap of the clubs as they land neatly in his palms creating a rhythm, like a heartbeat or a ticking clock.

It’s always seemed to me that juggling has something of an endless pursuit of the sublime about it, and L’Homme de Boue seems in part to be a manifestation of the tension between this and a counter urge: to return to earth – quite literally in this case.  It’s not long before Israël’s rolling around in the clay, slathering himself until he’s slick and encrusted with chalky fragments. Returning to his feet, he’s at once statuesque and bestial, heaving a mound of clay up into the nape of his neck and staggering about, his chin pressed tight against his breastbone.

Throughout, Israël seems to be seeking some ultimate communion with or expression through the clay, and, notwithstanding his sincerity, there’s much humour to be had on the way: he parades around with clay as a courtly cap on his head, creates a whole-head clay helmet, and at one point buries his head in clay and remains upturned and static in a near-reverie. In one of the piece’s most effective sections, he juggles with three chunks of clay, alternately tossing one aside and creating a new third chunk from the remaining two, until they’re tiny flecks and disappear completely. And throughout too, just a few feet away from him, we are aware of the clay’s physical presence and properties – its weight, its earthy smell, its coolness to touch and its limitless malleability.

Before entering the theatre, we’re given a poem to read, which extends on the show’s copy by suggesting that the piece is concerned with the ‘disturbing’ universal primal instinct to return to the mud from which we all emerged. That it was felt necessary to supplement our experience of the piece in this way perhaps says more about a perception of audiences’ expectations  of circus work than the impenetrability of the show’s ideas. For as an exploration of this instinct it’s eloquent and engaging. Whilst there’s a contrivance to the piece’s cyclical structure that perhaps prevents it from taking us anywhere too uncomfortable, Israël’s no-holds-barred performance gives us both the anguish and ecstasy involved in pursuing unaccountable urges and desires. L’Homme de Boue risks sharing an impulse with us and dares us not to feel the same.

Bristol Old Vic - Life Raft - Photo by Jack Offord

Bristol Old Vic: Life Raft

Bristol Old Vic - Life Raft - Photo by Jack OffordIt was difficult to watch Life Raft without being reminded of how a photograph of the body of a young boy washed up on a Turkish beach had just significantly shifted the conversation about how the world responds to the Syrian refugee crisis. In Bristol Old Vic’s powerfully resonant production, thirteen children are stranded aboard a lifeboat with tragic consequences, and while the circumstances might be very different, the challenge both scenarios present to how we understand our humanity is not dissimilar.

Based on Georg Kaiser’s 1945 play, The Raft of the Medusa, Fin Kennedy’s adaptation updates the context to a non-specific but recognisably modern-day world, where there has been war for as long as the children can remember. With no idea where they are, limited rations, and little prospect of rescue, they have to work out how to survive. A mute stowaway, named Foxy by the children on account of his red hair, takes their number up to thirteen and becomes the scapegoat during much of what follows.

Kennedy’s agile and sensitive writing brilliantly captures the moment-to-moment urgency of the dilemmas the children face and their varying responses. There are times when it’s very difficult to watch, not least because – as the protagonists are children – an adult audience feels necessarily implicated in the course the action takes. While the production is very much an ensemble piece, it’s the story of thirteen year old Ann (Amy Kemp) that we follow most closely. One of the oldest, and self-appointed second in command, it’s in her that the conflicts between instincts, ideals, and intellect are most effectively dramatized, and it’s the image of her grief and agony at the end, as she’s unable to bear living with what she didn’t stop happening, which stays with us.

Max Johns has created a beautifully desolate seascape, with an expanse of clear plastic sheeting that extends up the back wall of the theatre, shimmering and murky under Tim Streader’s atmospheric lighting design. The lifeboat itself is a precarious structure, represented by partially submerged chairs and crates, which are nimbly rearranged throughout. Director Melly Still has elicited some phenomenal performances from the young people – assured, nuanced and brave – and it seems important to note that while this is a play whose cast is predominantly under 18, it’s not headlined as such, representing a subtle but significant shift in the status conferred on work made in collaboration with young artists.

The show’s billing as part of the Bristol Green Capital programme is quietly provocative. Yes, it may be implicit that one of the reasons for the ongoing war of which the children are victims is a lack of resources; more to the point, however, would seem to be the idea that when we consider how we want to act in the face of ecological challenges, we should consider what we want our actions to say about our humanity. This compelling and affecting production connects us to what seems impossible about how we all might go on to survive together in this world, and asks us to have hope and to be strong.

Strange Arrangement - Drifters

Strange Arrangement: Drifters

Strange Arrangement - DriftersIt’s like the start of a joke: an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a German are stranded together in the same boat. What happens next? Well in Hampshire-based Strange Arrangement’s gently comic and at times moodily inventive sea-show, they let their imaginations run wild in an attempt to stave off boredom and desperation.

Englishman William (Alex Mangan) finds himself shipmates with Joey (Ivan Hall) and Hans (Nigel Luck, who also co-directed the show). Together, they’re a warm-hearted and motley crew, with a penchant for fantastical adventures, pranks, and melancholic turns. As there’s a bit of a three-way language barrier, the interaction is all physical and visual, with effective use of the vessel’s brown-paper sails and other flotsam and jetsam to entertain and distract each other in the face of encroaching suicidal thoughts.

There are some memorable images, in particular a swelling sea, conjured from a sheet of black plastic billowed aloft with fans, which mutates into two giant, malevolent rolling and buffeting balls, suggesting a wilder, darker side to the crew’s collective experiences of life at sea. Sue Dacre’s beautiful puppets are also one of the show’s highlights. Strung up on the rigging like memento mori, these wizened brown-paper body parts and lovely expressive heads, half-animal, half-human, are assembled and reassembled into different creatures that haunt the ship in some of the piece’s most absorbing sequences.

Towards the end of the performance things take on a more reflective bent, and there’s a glimpse of the stark reality of their situation, as William and Hans remember crew mates lost at sea – a welcome tonal complication in a piece that otherwise feels determinedly buoyant. Perhaps a show that’s explicitly about drifting is inevitably going to feel a little lacking in direction, or unanchored, but the piece’s monotonous rhythm, which is constantly looking for the next idea, doesn’t support satisfying development of the characters or their relationships. If this engaging emerging company can stick with and build on some of its image-making – in which they’ve evidently no shortage of ideas and skills – then their work may really set sail.

Presented as part of NEW VISIONS LIVE – a platform for emerging UK-based artists at Bristol Festival of Puppetry