There’s a famous argument about Othello, which is made by the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out and elsewhere repeated. The argument is that a pivotal part of Othello’s downfall is his insatiable desire to know, an addiction to knowledge. He interrogates Desdemona’s love, questions it, seeks evidence for it, until it is destroyed by that very searching.
Sam Ward’s The Accident Did Not Take Place is the play that, on some level, looks at that argument and says, hold my drink.
At its heart, The Accident is a statement about reality itself and whether the ‘real’ is something we can ever truly uncover. It’s a play about memory and accessing the past, about authenticity and artifice, a play about the things we rehearse, the things we don’t rehearse, and a play about a plane crash.
If you’ve seen YESYESNONO’s work before, you’ll have some inkling of what to expect: an eschewing of traditional narrative, and some blanks in the show’s overall design that are filled in when the work meets its daily time and space. Unlike last year’s [insert slogan here], however, these unique interactions are not with audience members – the trick this time is that The Accident uses a new performer each day (on this day, Chris Thorpe) who is unfamiliar with the play’s content or trajectory and must be instructed by the three regular cast members (Emma Clark, Tilda O’Grady and Jon Hawkins).
Together, the company run through the last recorded moments of a plane crash time after time, with live direction by the core company, who constantly ‘improve’ and ‘correct’ Thorpe’s performance. By doing it more and more, can he make it any more real or more authentic? What if we seek more information? Will that help us know it better? Of course these layers add not knowledge but artifice; the information obscures rather than enlightens. The more we know, the less we feel sure of. The ‘closer’ Thorpe gets to the perfect performance, the less real his character seems.
Last year Breach Theatre did a show called The Drill, which explored how we rehearse for emergencies. The Accident reminds be a bit of The Drill, but in a sense is its reverse, taking an emergency and exploring how we might re-enact it and remember it afterwards. Unlike Breach’s, though, YESYESNONO’s investigation lacks an especially ethical dimension. The show seems less concerned with any moral question of re-enactment, but rather a philosophical, specifically an existential, one: because the past lacks a current material reality, in what sense can it be said to be real?
The Accident then turns its attention to Thorpe himself (or, obviously, to that day’s guest), demanding of him a series of demonstrations to help us get to “know” him better. “Show me what you look like when…” introduces each scenario. Like the reconstruction of the crash, each action is inadequate to reveal Thorpe’s character, to get at any fundamental truth. What might serve as a useful shorthand for a character’s introduction in, say, a novel – the specific way he waves hello, the specific way he dominates a space – here has a reducing effect on Thorpe, who often looks not so much captured by these snapshots, as caught out.
There’s an audacity to all this that I very much admire. Are they really going to keep doing this, you find yourself asking. And yep, they are. I also like the way that YESYESNONO make shows that, even at the Fringe, look and feel completely different to anyone else’s. Their work is playful, it teases things and I like the little revelation of that part of the show that can only find its finished form with a new participant each day. I like the frisson of the unrehearsed.
Whereas the tender audience interactions in [insert slogan here] seemed genuinely revealing, the techniques in The Accident seek deliberately to obscure. Whilst I enjoyed it, this made The Accident seem slightly less compelling overall – more a curious diversion than something that will really stay with me. Although can anything ever really stay with us anyway?
The Accident Did Not Take Place is on at Pleasance until 26th August. More info and ticket here.