Ontroerend Goed, who have previously wowed Fringe audiences with one-on-one performances, sensory journeys, gambling casinos, and dating games, return to Edinburgh with a show that – gosh! – is presented on a regular stage, and doesn’t involve any audience interaction or immersion. Although actually, this isn’t the first time… The company have very many modus operandi, a whole bag of theatrical tricks up their sleeves, and in my experience their ‘regular’ staged theatre shows have, in recent years, been their most exciting and innovative work. Are we not drawn onward to new erA is a magnificent piece of theatre: inventive, absorbing, challenging, surprising.
In case you’re wondering about the title, it’s a palindrome – and that is highly relevant. The programme contains a Kierkegaard quote, which is also highly relevant: ‘Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.’
So, a wide stage. A small tree bearing one apple. A woman lying curled on the ground. Ah, Eve then. A man enters, the apple is eaten, with calm concentration. And so it starts. Little by little, one step at a time, the stage becomes populated by people and objects. People speak in a strange language. I try to work out what it is, and eventually twig. Talking of twigs: one of the men lays into the little tree and pulls it to bits. Another man, carrying a party balloon, goes off to get the head of a giant gold statue. Other parts of the statue are dragged on, and it’s erected. There’s a selfie moment. The stage gets more and more crowded, and a point of complete ludicrousness is reached as clouds of prettily-coloured plastic bags rain down, covering every bit of available space.
And then? Well, we’ve reached the point of no return. Point Zero. The moment when humanity has caused so much damage to the planet that it has become uninhabitable for our species.
And then? What can be done? We can’t turn the clock back, can we? There’s no Planet B, no second chance. Is there? Time’s arrow flies forward…
The second half is an extraordinary coup de theatre – and it would be unreasonable of me to say any more about the narrative. I will switch instead to talking about form rather than content.
Are we not drawn onward to new erA mixes engaging and carefully choreographed live performance by an ensemble of six actors, a very novel and clever use of video (Jeroen Wuyts and Babette Poncelet), and original musical composition (by William Basinski) played by a sextet of musicians from the Spectra Ensemble. Director Alexander Devriendt, who is a co-founder of the company, does a great job pulling all elements together to create a piece that is both funny and disturbing, frighteningly pessimistic and full of melancholic, perhaps desperate, hope. The twist at the centre of the piece has the quality of one of those bargaining rescue fantasies you have after someone dies, in which you imagine that you can go back to the fateful moment and just do things differently. Or the fantasy in which the dead person turns up in your dreams to reassure you that they haven’t died after all. But then you wake up… But no, you’re still dreaming, just dreaming you’re awake.
Are we not drawn onward to new erA is a cleverly staged, visually sumptuous dream – technically, a fantastic achievement, and artistically, a truly beautiful show full of pensive sadness.
Featured image (top) Ontroerend Goed: Are we not drawn forward to new erA. Photo Mirjam Devriendt