I spent the first half of Are we not drawn onward to new erA pretty sure I knew what it was about. I knew the concept (just like its title the show is a palindrome) so I knew as each thing was done, each movement made, that at some point in the future it must be undone, unmade. But of course not all that is done can be undone – watching took me back to an early science lesson talking about reactions; frozen water can be melted, but burnt toast cannot be turned back to bread. And as the show progresses it is full of a mix of these reversible and unreversable actions; an apple may be passed back, but not uneaten, plastic bags can be picked up, but not flown to the ceiling en masse, a cut down tree cannot be reattached at its base.
The show felt like a refutation of hope. At a time when climate change protests fill the news, calling for action to fix our broken planet, it felt like the show was a pragmatic answer that not all that is broken can be fixed. I anticipated a second half of watching the performers fail to perform the show in reverse.
But then the change comes. A curtain is closed, and the audience is addressed – we cannot go back. But when the curtain is drawn back it reveals a screen where, reversed on video, we see the address we were just given, but the words we listened to have become nonsense, and the former nonsense has turned into other words, more hopeful, more determined – it is impossible, but it must be done. We see everything that has come before reversed and it is magical. Each time those on stage doubt something can be done, it is, and the result is beautiful and precise and delicate and joyful and funny and sad.
This second act feels like, instead of a refutation of hope, a call for impossible hope – to know it can’t be done and do it anyway. The pure hope of it almost broke me, each plastic bag flown up or apple unbitten cueing a new stream of tears. I wanted so desperately to believe in what was happening in front of me. With the orchestral music swelling beneath it, it feels almost cheesy – but absolutely in the best way possible. It made me think that maybe all I want is theatre with an experimental form and a painfully sentimental heart.
Of course, there is still the squirming doubt in my head that my first reading of the message of the show is the one that is ‘right’. The metaphor may seem simple, but it is also mercurial. After all, each moment of magic onscreen emphasises how impossible it would be to replicate in real life, and when the screen is raised for the actors to take their bows all the mess they created is still there, further evidence of the impossibility of what we have seen. Even that more hopeful speech is delivered by a projection saying ‘you may think I’m not real’.
And even if its message is a cry for hope rather than a cynical mockery of it, it is still far from showing any wide-eyed naivete – even as the stage is magically cleared there are arguments of how far they should go, and a sobering final question – what’s the point of clearing up our mess if we stick around to create it all again?
Are we not drawn onward to new erA is on at ZOO venues at 11am until 26th August. More info and tickets here.