Friday 8 November 2013

Landscape II – BAC

[seen 06/11/13]

“During my time here, I thought to draw myself closer to places I knew, that the small peace and revelations of the land were the treasures of kindness. But they were reflections. Drawing me in so I may turn and see outwards.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Extraordinary, and possibly nigh-on impossible to write about satisfactorily.

[I tried to write a non-spoilery review, but it didn’t work, so this one might get a bit blow-by-blow because I think I’m going to need to write down everything that happened just to work it out for myself. So, y’know, go and see it first if that sort of thing annoys you. It’s also very First Person-subjective, so maybe skip it if that annoys you too.]

As well as being a writer and performer extraordinaire – I’ve been a massive fan since Simple Girl in 2007 – Wilson is also a virtuoso sound designer. Most notably, beyond her own shows, for Katie Mitchell’s recent German outings Die Gelbe Tapete and Reise Durch die Nacht. I mention this, because I think it is crucial to the way this piece operates.

The only thing I knew going in was the vague recollection of the first line of the flyer: “Three women separated by a hundred years start a conversation across time.” That’s also a useful thing to know.

I have to admit that, in the moment, I found the beginning pretty hard going. Yes, it was beautifully executed: Wilson sits very still at a wooden table, housing the necessary detritus of sound-operation – there’s a laptop, a little board of lighted switches and a small sound-desk volume control board. This is placed on a set (designed by Wilson and lighting designer Ben Pacey) suggesting the whitewashed plaster walls and floorboards of a remote cottage: the remote cottage where one of her characters seems to be now, and where one was 100 years ago. The long back wall of the cottage doubles as a vast video projection screen. It’s worth saying that this is possibly the most impressive, integrated use of video I’ve ever seen. The whole wall just unfussily lights up. There are no visible joins, no slight shudders or static; just perfect crisp, clear pictures – beautifully filmed (and projected) by Will Duke.

But, yes, hard going. The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better? (Possibly because I was very tired, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.) At the same time, the piece continues to command complete attention and respect. At no point during this phase of disorientation did I feel irritable or like I wanted to leave. Exactly the opposite: I wanted to concentrate even harder, to find a way of existing comfortably in the piece.

When I said that I think the piece operates like sound design, I suppose I really meant more “like music”. Quite quickly you become aware of subtle shifts in the lighting, in the words, and in the timbre of Wilson’s voice. These tiny, subtle changes work like the leitmotifs in Wagner. I think every character, perhaps even each significant aspect of the narrative had shifts in sound, light and wordsound to designate their arrival. More concentration needed.

Then, at around the halfway point there’s a bit that makes you pretty much jump out of your skin. Tending to avoid “horror” theatre and plays designed to “shock”, it’s been absolute age since something’s made me jump in a theatre in the way that thrillers do in the cinema.

This single moment completely changed the entire game for me. Up until that point, the beauty and the meandering, while lovely to look at and listen to, hadn’t really been connecting with me. This moment of visceral shock not only connected, but also made retrospective sense of the lulling first part – like someone soothing you into a state of relaxation the better to make you jump unexpectedly. From here on in it felt more like I was fighting a battle between being very wired with adrenaline and still back to being soothed over.

Closer to the end, there is a bigger, more profound, more political shift. I won’t say what it is here/now, but strangely, it confirmed the strangest impression I’d had at the first shock*. And what this second piece of information, I suppose, does is to comprehensively re-wire your understanding of everything that has gone before – or at least it did for me. It absolutely abolishes the impression of this being perhaps a floaty, pretty-pretty, pastoral piece and makes it about something very real, urgent, and pressing. It also wires all that back into the importance of the natural beauty of the landscapes we had been previously considering. It makes the piece into a meditation not only on beauty but Art and Politics.

The quote at the top of this review for me absolutely nails the core of the whole thing, and gave me a way to retrospectively understand and appreciate it all.

Something else that is phenomenal about the piece is the severity of the disorientation it causes for a good while after it ends. The word “hallucinatory” gets used a bit too much to describe pieces of theatre, but leaving the Council Chamber space at the BAC (unrecognisable, even after having only been there the previous Friday), I felt completely spaced and wrung out for a good quarter of an hour afterwards. The conversation I had with friends afterwards was less “wasn’t that great?” (it was), but “what the hell just happened?”

Landscape II feels like a spectacular, extraordinary intelligent and, importantly, feminist achievement of the thing.

* The first shock immediately made me think of this scene from this film which I’m linking to, but clicking it will be a total spoiler. Also, it’s quite a harrowing scene.

[all the pictures used are screen-shots from the Landscape II trailer using Will Duke's film]

1 comment:

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