Lunchtime on a rare sunny Saturday, and a small crowd gathers in the lobby of Norwich Playhouse. There’s a sense of apprehension, accompanied by visits to the lavatory and unease about leg-room. Someone jokes about bringing a bar of Kendal’s Mint Cake. The bell rings: the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma is about to commence a 12-hour exploration of a life more ordinary, from the exact transcript of a series of long telephone conversations. I steel myself.
Episode One (3.5 hours)
I have an aisle seat. I am a mere ten yards from the toilet. I can sprawl. I am immediately kindly disposed towards the production. I wait for the house lights to dim: they do not. The stage is bare, and behind it hangs a bright-lit white canvas. A small orchestra tunes its instruments – a glockenspiel, a keyboard, a flute, the ubiquitous ukulele. “Ubiquelele”, I mutter sourly. Amongst them is Kristin Worrall, whose life story we’re about to hear. “I bet it’s the flute player”, someone says. “Look at her. I bet it’s her.”
Music begins: it is simple to the point of childish, with a few sweet motifs here and there. A young woman with sturdy knees in a grey tunic appears onstage, and silently commences a dance which is part semaphore, part Communist-era mass fitness demonstration. I make my first mistake of the night, which is to try and decode her gestures. What is she doing? What does that mean? What does that mean?!
The woman begins to sing. There is a quality of plainsong in the music, which is not precisely tuneless, but which favours the pattern of speech above melody. We all knew – of course we knew! – that we were to hear a transcript of real conversation, real speech, a real woman recalling real life, but all the same it seems outlandish, infuriating even: surely to goodness no-one actually talks like this? Do I talk like this? Somebody slap me. Somebody slap her!
“And um…so…I was like…you know…Oh my God, you know?!”
Every infuriating tic of speech is not merely included, but foregrounded. Surtitles make them inescapable. There is a wit to them, too: frequently question marks emphasise the woman’s tendency to turn statements? Into a question? Here and there are lines for which any writer would cheerfully strangle their cat. “I don’t think I ever heard him smile.”
She is joined by two companions, and they are almost a single unit, the speech passing from one mouth to another, the curious physical jerks occasionally seeming to complement the story, but often not.
Time slowly passes. Nothing happens. Men join the cast. It is their tale, too. Who is she? Is she Julie? Bobby? Kristin? But I’m oblivious to my aching knees, and I have given no thought to my bladder: there is something in this story that epitomises the quality of universality often cited as the mark of great literature. Her story is not my story. It is not yours. But it is, somehow, absolutely ours: every beloved toy, every small injustice still rankling, every school companion despised or adored – they are all here. I look behind me; I look to my right. There are nods of recognition, there are agonised grimaces, there are knowing chuckles. The whole auditorium has become a kind of hive mind.
The girl once made a book “about this owl that had, like, no friends?” She stapled it together; she illustrated the cover. Her brother surrounded the owl with a flock of birds. Her anger, filtered through the decades and the mouths of others, is palpable. “It was supposed to like a lonely owl, like OH MY GOD!!”
I can see the books I made as a child. I can see the red embroidery thread sewing the pages together. I can see them.
The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma prides itself on a quality of hospitality. We have sat, entranced, for three and a half hours, and it is time for lunch. Passers-by watch, bemused, as the cast fires up a rank of gas barbecues. I fear for their beards, one of which reaches to mid-chest in exactly the shape of a garden spade. There is corn on the cob, hamburgers cooked rare, jacket potatoes wrapped in foil, vast containers of dried chives and sour cream. I have never been to the States. This is near as I’m likely to get. My chin is coated in American Mustard. It stings.
A German woman returns three times complaining that her potato is hard. The garden spade quivers. The atmosphere is that of a party not quite sure how it got there. I hear, over and over, “Isn’t it brilliant? Like: BRILLIANT?!”
Episode Two (2 hours)
Part two brings changes of tone. The girl is preoccupied with breasts. Television has taught her there is something called ‘A Soap Opera Kiss’. She is keen to experience such a thing, with either her mother or with a friend as they share a bath. She’s not fussed. A boy hands her a scrap of paper. It says : “Do you want to be my girlfriend? Check yes or no.” Friendships are forged and broken in an atmosphere of manipulation and treachery that would shame the Borgias. Fathers are stern and remote; mothers cook.
Unravelling the American school system is tricky, but I guess she’s maybe eight or nine. There is a kind of uneasy courage in her revelations. The music and the dance movements have altered slightly – or have they? – and it strikes me that each cast member represents an aspect of the girl’s character. Innocent, knowing, generous, sly, resentful, a bad friend, a good sister. Facial gestures are exaggerated, and appear out of keeping with the speech (“So…umm…I was really into it? Like really? Ummm….”). Is she angry? Is she confused?
I make a few notes about the quality of the performances, but rather half-heartedly: it seems, somehow, not the point. Meanwhile, I judge from an outbreak of laughter that a fair proportion of the audience has attempted to smoke both tea-leaves and banana-skins.
Later, I discover that the Life and Times is nearer to conceptual art than to a play: behind it there are ideas as skilfully strange as the performance itself. Those dance moves and those facial gestures, which I tried so hard to decode, are decided by a game of chance before the performance, their random nature inviting the audience to impose meaning where there is none. This aspect of chance is beloved of the show’s directors and creators, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, who absolve themselves of the agony of artistic decision by drawing lots before each performance. The musicians and composers barely knew one end of a keyboard from another before beginning work on the piece. Does knowing this make those curious dances more or less meaningful, the music more skilled or less? I’m not sure. I’m hungry.
We are served brownies, and whipped cream.
No-one has left (yet).
Episodes 3 & 4 (2.5 hours)
Episode 3 is brilliant. Brilliant! These people are geniuses. I have never seen anything so experimental, so unusual, so new. It is possible I am suffering from a benevolent form of Stockholm Syndrome.
The stage is set for Agatha Christie, for JB Priestley. A canvas fire burning in a canvas grate, an unwieldy telephone. Lisle stockings, pin-tucked blouses, trench coats, trilby hats. The mystery here is as bloody as any murder: the girl has begun to menstruate. For the first time, we hear the other voice. Cleverly, the girl’s monologue is handed out between the ensemble, and delivered with such inflexion as to make it seem a play written for a larger cast.
I hand my notebook to my husband, who has abandoned his first qualms (“Twelve hours? Twelve, did you say?”) and is enthralled. He writes:
V. clever! V. clever! V. clever!
Piano – sinister – silent movie music. SILENT MOVIE FIGHT SCENE.
Teenage angst turns to scary psychological problems.
CHESTER a farm town!!!!
THIS IS JUST WHAT TEENAGERS FEEL LIKE
I confess I drift a little. Centre stage with slow delivery (“Ummm…like…”) someone is fretting about religion. For the first time, I feel impatient. Get on with it!
Also, it is my bedtime.
We were promised snacks. “Cheetos!” we said (we’ve seen Family Guy. We watch the telly). “Twinkies! Reese’s Pieces!”
There are plates of cheese and crackers, and slices of apple discolouring at the white edges. There is tea from a stainless steel urn. Neither of these are what one expects from Brooklyn.
A woman hands us each a large buff-coloured envelope. It is stamped DO NOT OPEN. “Do not open”, she says.
“Would you like earplugs?”
Episodes 4.5 & 5 (1 hour 45 minutes)
We are to watch an animated film, in which the girl chases her cat, Bentley. The cast have, presumably, gone to bed. I don’t blame them.
The animation is rather crude, and accompanied by migraine-inducing flashes of colour. The drawings were painstakingly done by Kelly Copper, who had no training and no previous artistic experience, and whose hours of tracing and colouring caused a painful condition in her wrists.
Bentley is briefly tormented by the girl’s brother. I close my eyes.
Long gone midnight, and we’re at ‘the lost hours’: a switch from analogue to digital recording was a disaster. The girl is recounting her first sexual experience, and has become uncharacteristically coy.
She has taken to keeping a diary, which has a padded blue cover. She confesses to not having always been truthful in her entries. I experience a moment of existential panic: she is an unreliable narrator!
All these hours, Kristin, all these hours – and I don’t know what to believe anymore!
A man in a tux sits at a large digital piano on the CREEPY HAUNTED HOUSE PIPE ORGAN setting. A low spotlight casts a sinister shadow on the white screen: he is Boris Karloff, he is Max Schreck. We are instructed to open our envelopes. Inside we find a head torch, and a small book, which has a padded blue cover.
Boris begins. I consider the music to be coarse, and lacking in artistic merit. My husband thinks it is the Greatest Thing He Has Ever Heard. We are agreed on the effect, which is of thunderous unease. Fixing the light of our head torches on the small blue books, we find a cross between the Kama Sutra and a medieval manuscript of exquisite workmanship. I expect to hear a British titter, but there is nothing: each by the light of their single lamp is entirely and unselfconsciously absorbed.
Illuminated margins in which Bentley the cat cleans his paws surround beautifully drawn acts of sexual athleticism. It is like a Book of Hours devoted to carnal love. It is extraordinary – the more so since it was drawn by Copper and Liska, the original manuscript created according to the ancient methods, with heavy paper folded into quires, and inks painstakingly mixed.
The book is one of the most desirable objects I’ve ever held, and it takes considerable effort, together with a recollection of the Sunday School lessons of my childhood, not to steal it.
The trim gentleman with the bald head and magnificent moustache seems familiar, as does the woman: I realise it is Copper and Liska themselves. I cannot decide whether it is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, or the ultimate privileging of artist above art. Mostly, I am wondering why they happened to have a step-ladder in the bedroom.
We are served hot chocolate. It is one thirty in the morning: it is tomorrow. I am not tired. I feel vaguely triumphant, as if I had a hand in what I have just seen. Perhaps I did.
Life and Times was presented as part of the Norfok and Norwich Festival. Main image by Anna Stocher-Burgtheater Wien. Photos by Sarah Perry.