Visceral thrills and society’s ills

This is how we die – Battersea Arts Centre, until 14 November 2014 (tickets – returns only)

At the end of Christopher Brett Bailey’s performance of This is how we die the audience are subjected to – and it is a case of being subjected to rather than being passive observers of – a sonic assault that is best imagined as the sound of an imploding, decaying universe and the tentative hope that something new and beautiful can rise from the fading flickering light. The stage lights turn their impassive bulbs on the audience, bathing the Christopher Brett Bailey_THIS IS HOW WE DIE_Credit Jemima Yongobservers in a harsh, unforgiving light whilst ear-shattering, fuzzy rhythms rise and fall, roll and repeat, looping and overlaying motifs amongst discordant sounds. It is the white-noise of paranoia and of an overwhelmingly claustrophobic hopelessness. And then suddenly, within this kaleidoscope of fear, emerges the purity of higher-pitched strings, cutting through the chaos and providing the possibility of escape.

This antagonistic ending, this attritional warfare waged between performer and observer is only eight minutes long but it could easily have been eighty. It is a wonderfully considered reflection and response to the sixty minutes that come before, and adds to the impression that Christopher Brett Bailey has talents and intelligence far beyond being a highly articulate performer blessed with startling verbal dexterity.

Video Doc Still 2014-07-09 at 17.27.44Having not previously heard of Bailey, and without looking at the show’s synopsis, I hadn’t really considered what to expect. Whatever I might have expected wouldn’t have come close to the reality. This is a performance that is felt rather than seen. The audience are almost immaterial; nothing has been created for our benefit. The stagecraft is defiantly un-staged. It is a man at a desk, talking, talking and continuing to talk, from notes, for sixty minutes, without stopping, almost without breathing, he continues to talk, to himself, to the walls, to the room, whether the audience is in the room or not, it feels as if he would continue to talk, possibly until all words had become exhausted.

It leaves you in a state of mental and physical exhaustion. Listening to the dialogue, focusing on the words is mentally draining, but there is also palpable tension, as a result of a deliberately abrasive delivery style, that creates an adrenalin rush so intense that by the end of performance you leave the auditorium woozy, unsteady and in need of air.

Bailey arrives as an unassuming, almost diffident presence – perhaps the only hint of what is to come is the resemblance to a young David Lynch – but as soon as he begins he exerts a magnetism that pulls in whatever direction the flight of fancy will take him. He is a remarkably assured performer and is blessed with a lyrical nimbleness that allows what, are assumed to be, tightly crafted pieces the air of stream-of-consciousness dialogue.

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Memories are made of this

The Dead – Barbican Pit, until 01 February (part of the London International Mime Festival)

Città di Ebla’s The Dead, inspired by the James Joyce’s short in the collection, Dubliners, is an intriguing performance piece that eventually struggles to overcome the sense it is a composite of a number of stunning images carefully interwoven with some technical wizardry rather than cohering together as a fully-functional whole.

Performed as part of the London International Mime Festival, Città di Ebla have used Joyce’s story as a jumping off point for a wider exploration of a person’s memory and its relation to past and present. Joyce’s original is rarely referenced directly, Città-di-Ebla_The-deadand it is hard to escape the shadow of Proust when unpicking what it is to remember, but The Dead does seem appropriate launch-pad as it delivers a universal experience to which the audience can relate.

The protagonist, performed by Valentina Bravetti, plays the nameless woman who appears to be returning to an apartment and in doing so her interactions with the surroundings trigger memories of a past love. These memories are captured live through Luca Di Fillipo’s photography and are instantly overlaid on a screen at the front of stage.

The live element of the photography changes the dynamic of what the audience are watching. On one level the difference between a slide-show of pre-recorded images and live photos is minimal; they achieve the same effect – of allowing a portal into the performer’s inner world. However understood on a second level it begins to challenge our intuitive assumptions about the nature of memory.

As these images are being created and displayed instantly it creates an implication that the past is a place where we cannot return and the act of remembering is something that happens in the present. All of our experiences are stored in the present. They cannot be stored in the past or future. So when Bravetti’s character is recalling her love is she creating a new moment in the present with her memory or is she genuinely accessing a memory of a past event?

citta-di-ebla-the-dead-85879Città di Ebla plays on this sense of dislocation by deliberately creating a vague sense of time. A voiceover implies the lover was 17 when they died, which would suggest several years must have passed, whilst Bravetti appears to be picking up papers that are suggestive of a much more recent event.

A reverse reading can also be seen in the production; an exploration of how the past shapes our present. Our past experiences clearly shape our present – not just in the outcome of the choices we make but also in the way it can suddenly come alive and infect our present. As Bravetti travels through the apartment she is forced into an act of remembering by a past that is dynamic and alive. It lives on in otherwise inanimate objects. Whether she chooses to or not, the artefacts, the remnants, of that relationship are shaping her present.

These questions are not resolved, and it is not Città di Ebla’s intention to resolve them; however as a result this lack of conclusion, allied to a lack of narrative thrust, means that the piece as a whole, whilst technically very impressive, struggles to exert a grip on the audience.

The screen separating the audience from performer acts creates a certain distance that leads to problems with empathy. For the majority of the show we see the performer through the  protective screen of her memories. This is used to create some startling effects and the choreography and interaction between the two leads to some scenes that are laid out with a painterly composition that Vermeer would be proud of.

Yet it is notable that some of the most engaging and human moments of the play are when we are left alone with Bravetti and are allowed to momentary step back from the window into her soul. One yearns for more of these moments, where we are left along with the external grieving process, and we recognise the human for what it is; something, that for all the technical mastery you want to employ, where the workings of the psyche is ultimately unknowable.