Writing about early scratch performances of shows is a bit of a minefield if one also works as a critic. It feels slightly like a breech of etiquette, like writing up a pre-press night performance. However, at the same time, this first couple of outings for Melanie Wilson's new show Enter the Dame at the BAC last night and tonight had capacities of twenty per night and were sold out within minutes to interested, pre-warned parties. Even if all the other 39 people there read this blog (which is unlikely) that leaves a fair few readers who could well be curious to hear the first dispatches on what it's like.
So, what follows emphatically isn't “a review”. Hopefully it's reportage and useful musings. Also, hopefully, I think most of the suggestions I make here I already discussed in person after the show. That said, do write any thoughts on how, if at all, scratches could and should most usefully be blogged – toward the concept of a “Scratch review” where the review itself is a kind of first draft, I suppose - in the comments section below. Dear me, why this sudden enthusiasm to establish conventions? Anyway, the show...
Enter the Dame begins in darkness. The small audience is seated on four sides, arranged in fours around café tables. There is a pre-show bar in the space itself – in the good old days, I daresay we'd have been smoking, too. Actually, since we're on the stage, and there is audience participation, maybe we still could – this would fit brilliantly with the slightly suggested air of European glamour that Wilson's texts seems to evoke.
Single piano notes sound in the darkness. Music from (I think) either Górecki's Third Symphony or Mahler's 2nd or 3rd (annoyingly can't find online to check which) begins. There is a recorded voiceover explaining disjointedly, that everything in the story takes place in a future past preceding a catastrophic “Third War”.
Lights above the tables come up dimly and fade. There is a dense, bleak soundscape. More lights up and down. Wilson crosses into the centre of the space and begins to speak. The lights are still very dim. Her face is only elliptically available. This establishes the pattern much of the show, which is divided between near-complete darkness (theatre darkness – the darkness available in spaces with sound-desks and exit signs) and dim lighting, voiceovers, soundscapes and live direct audience address. The is something rather Beckett-y about it. The lights up, lights down routine with the tables is reminiscent of Play. The tone is darker than Simple Girl. At one point a smoke machine fills the space with a foggy haze. I'd have been quite happy if this had been even more extensively used. This is the sort of show that works beautifully when only half-visible through thick smoke.
That said, there are also sequences of more brightly lit lightness. At several points Wilson sits down next to audience members, treating them as the other character in the scene, at once narrating to the rest of us, describing the character imposed on the audience member and at the same time almost “playing the scene” with them. The potential for this technique becoming a bit intrusive and off-putting is completely dispelled by Wilson's stage presence. It's almost like the seriousness with which children tell stories; at once both light and concentrated, it is completely charming.
The best of these sequences involves Wilson playing a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure with one audience member (shades of Jonah Non Grata, here), but without using the book. The audience member's collusion actually adds to the narrative. This is perhaps the area which could most profitably be expanded within the show. More sections of this could potentially work brilliantly.
The story of the show – though pretty fragmented and, in this version, without readily apparent conclusion – concerns a woman pursuing a man by whom she has become transfixed. I think that's it, anyway. I'm not sure I completely took in all the nuances, but that was the impression. In one way, I suppose this sounds like a plea for greater clarity. I'm not sure it is. Yes, parts of the story seemed unclear, but at the same time, the lack of clarity felt like a perfectly viable artistic choice.
For my money, there's probably more to be said about this pursuit. The interplay between the story and the bleaker, soundscapey bits could also be made more explicitly meaningful, but, then again, the opacity of the relationship between the sort states could be equally fruitful. If I'd been told this was the finished product rather than something where one is encouraged to give feedback, I daresay I would have probably worked harder on making my own meanings, instead of thinking of ways that it could be changed to accommodate the meanings I was coming up with - I guess that's partly my own problem, and partly a condition of watching things as scratch performances.
Although the BAC's little studio space isn't an ideal home for the piece – it's tempting to think that in an ideal world it should go to a disused cabaret bar, albeit one fitted up with a very good lighting rig. All in all its an exciting beginning, full of enormous potential and brimming with possibilities for further development. The current work-in-progress aesthetic suits its current form well, but it would/will be fascinating to see a fully realised, technologically advanced version.
(oh, and I've just discovered a 5 minute clip from Simple Girl on the website of the Dublin Fringe Festival. And another one here at Last FM.)