Back to ‘Live’ in London – from oratory in a dark theatre to dance with the outdoors and each other…A review of: Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre, En Route by PROTEIN and From Greenwich with Love by Rendez-Vous Dance.
July 2021.’ It is the tail-end of the lockdown everyone assumes is our last and theatres that can afford it have opened. Seeing Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre holds a promise of escapism on a number of levels – we need lyric poetry in times of challenge to: inspire, understand and be understood. There is also the temptation of rural Wales – its lushness, colour and atmosphere of dew and birdsong. New life, in any form, is something we’re all invested in. It’s the common denominator in a pandemic landscape that has seen political, social and environmental conditions explode. Going to a large auditorium, full of strangers who don’t belong to your bubble, who haven’t watched you slug around in your pyjamas, (or degenerate) for eighteen months, is a small risk. But listening to the audio-book of this play, as I am gently jigged to sleep, is one of my earliest memories. Thomas’ fictitious town, Llaregubb, is the residence of dreams.
There is comfort in the darkness and the way the NT’s FOH team are professionally welcoming and pragmatic while they execute safety protocols. There is excitement in being ushered into a congregation of new people breathing into masks. The NTs new production of Thomas’ sinuous ‘play for voices’ has the aesthetic of ‘poor theatre’ – truly a Covid era play. Motley chairs and tables form the scene of an old people’s home and light is stark and simplistic. We are in the thrust of the Olivier’ with the advantage of watching a cast of actors from all angles. The potential benefits of this to feed characterisation and foreshadow action with small ‘tells’ are manifold. Our curiosity antennas are already piqued as some famous faces shuffle among the slow ensemble without fanfare. Siân Phillips is among them. However, as the additional script of a present day care home is unfolded, little: surprises, wrong-foots or intrigues us. Gentle comic banter falls broadly on an audience that is primed by sharper observational comedy. We do feel safe in the hands of this conceit though. When Michael Sheen begins his oratory, jogging the fraying mind of his resident grandfather into remembering, we fully embrace the transition into Llareggub.
As the geriatric residents rise into the personalities of their heyday and a physical-theatre treatment is applied to forming vignettes from furniture and bodies, we are carried into the emotional life of the town. Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price yearn for each other through letters, across their shop counters. Mrs Ogmore Pitchard sadistically nags two dead husbands in her dreams…all is comic confection and bitter-sweet truth as the show trills into the Town’s daytime. Stark straw and red lighting is used in contrast to denote mood shifts – there is no presence of the valleys here.
When the narrative focuses on the austerity of Rev’ Eli Jenkins dinner-table, the disenchantment felt by he and his wife…and finally slips into the play’s more eulogic passages on: time, age and transcendence, melancholy is all encompassing –
‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light. And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
Lyndsey Turner’s production packs a sentimental gut-punch as the modern-day son of Jenkins sheds tears of joy at his father’s recollection of the past. We are left with the message of much literary drama – that life is there for taking amid all its fragility and pathetic irony. The care home residents resume their knitting and we follow black corridors into the street.
Far from serving-up the escapism of green valleys and lusty affairs, this show made us stare into the themes of our isolation – community, yearning, ageing, dreaming…time passing away. To set this piece in a care home as we live in the shadow of so many Covid deaths (especially in residential homes) was risky indeed. To rehash an earlier metaphor – it wasn’t the experience I ordered, but it was substantial.
En Route by Luca Silvestrini’s PROTEIN…
Early August 21.’ There is the sense in the public vernacular that we have been building up to this offer – outdoor, promenade dance. All the wellbeing words in the discourse have pointed towards getting out, reconnecting with the environment, finding new aspects in ourselves by looking outside. Dance has played an important part of the living-room mindfulness so far – of rediscovering our bodies’ through moving them around to the guidance of Zoom, without an audience.
The rain is torrential, and having cycled from central Greenwich to a suburban park in Woolwich, I (along with an ensemble of wet musicians), find ourselves waiting, anticipating the movement of the ensemble and audience to their second planned location. The staccato of the day’s weather creates suspense and a level of determination to see the performance that is shared by witnesses and crew…Because this is our designated new beginning – a performance on the other side of fully ‘opening up’ – a celebration of liveness, with others, in organic space.
A diverse group of nine dancers move into the promenade of trees, holding sticks up for the audience to file-through, Morris-Man style. It is in witnessing what happens next that jolts me into self-awareness and characterises this piece. The dancers respond to the earth and trees – weaving their bodies to the ground and reaching out to the ether, echoing conventional Contemporary dance. They climb and hand-stand to tree-trunks, intermittently calling to the atmosphere with their limbs and voices. There is a touch of the 1970s ashram to it. It strikes me, here, that the families, individuals watching are vicariously experiencing connection to nature in this – in witnessing others roll in mud, grip branches and release bursts of folk song into our consciousness. An audience of living-room bound captives is experiencing connection to the outdoors and others in structured degrees of proximity.
As we move into urban space, performers gravitate to the patches of green on the side of the road, or walkable walls for statuesque moments and solos. The live oboe, horn, drum music travels with us, creating slow pathos in the urban sprawl. When we reach Woolwich Shopping Centre, tanoys are picked up and exploited to show the mechanics of protest, and the figures process across a concrete square as if walking towards Fate with stoicism.
Our final destination at the new Woolwich Works building is a strategic move to bring our awareness to the cultural development of the area and its social potential. There are a few motions to a finale – explosions of voiced ‘thank you,’ fully embodied, an invitation to dance as a crowd and the introduction of a feed-back tree. The journey is complete and has, in playfully reappropriating space, and allowing us to witness this, been successfully cathartic. The family audience is happy. I feel safely socialised with the other polite audience members and full of desire to engage with the more tactile opportunities of life.
However, I left the communal high of En Route relatively unsurprised and unchallenged. Our immersion in the life of the performance was as bystanders and the politics of how PROTEIN engaged with their adult playground was gently non-specific. Perhaps this is exactly the medicine we needed…
From Greenwich with Love by Rendez-Vous Dance
Mid-August. Positing the word ‘healing’ next to ‘community’ has been another trope of the cultural conversation in 21,’ as organisations chomp at the bit to deliver engagement programmes with funding. This piece, drawing on true love stories within my own locality, tied-up the functions of connecting and inspiring in the realm of relationship. As such, my expectations were of story-content between dancers. The action was indeed conversational…
Mathieu Geffré ‘s FGWL, which focusses on alternating hetero’ and same-sex pairings, has been largely programmed within existing community festivals, making integration of the LGBTQ experience (through dance) an integral part of the event. It could be viewed that this is a conversation in itself. Although, it was the exchange of total gesture through countering, symmetry and fluid cause-and-effect contact that characterised this dancerly piece.
The crowd at Plumstead Gardens – (another bike-ride to a suburban park) – is a mix of families and local tradespeople browsing, and as such, presents a test in capturing and holding attention. The passages of purer engagement are during formation sequences, when the body of dancers move with one quality, covering the green expanse and coaxing audience members to hold the ends of rainbow coloured strings to make unifying patterns. There is direct connectivity at these points, which dominate the tender solos lost in the hubbub. We root for the couples in their exploration of each other and self while musing the stories behind specific props and actions – at one point there is a game of photo-taking at another…one suspends his lover upside down.
As is common with dance, abstract storytelling allows us to project our own understanding of intimacy and distance. The opportunity to do so in an environment where people invariably stumble on the performance, rather than seek it out, lends an extra dimension of vulnerability to the personalities extending themselves. It is this delicacy and quality of dance found in an unorthodox context, which is arguably the show’s strongest virtue. As I offer myself as a string holder and am warmly instructed, I’m aware that these lines in space are very measured.
As a person who has lived alone during 2020/21, these three performances have formed a journey that has incrementally socialized me back into ‘public’ life. It is gratifying to know that they have done so via the ancient mediums of live oratory and movement. Reflecting on this micro-journey, I am most aware of intentions and tensions – the shared intention to congregate and share our humanity, and the tensions between desiring immersion and what is safe and feasible.
As we rebuild with a culturally ambivalent government, I’ll be looking for how theatres of: voice, environment and movement can synthesize to make new, immersive and healing experiences possible.