Sat in the audience, we are detectives. We see a woman, wearing a black dress. We notice there are several vases of flowers on a table upstage. She’s getting ready to go out, drying her hair. Ah – a fascinator with net yarn. She’s going to a funeral.
Antler’s last show, Lands, placed two actors in an ingeniously simple situation, letting the encounter play out with committed naturalism. Civilisation, co-created by Jaz Woodcock Stewart and Morgann Runacre-Temple, does something similar – we watch a single (almost wordless) day in the flat of a recently bereaved woman… only onto this a second situation is overlayed. There are three dancers (Alethia Antonia, James Olivio, Emily Thompson-Smith) sharing the space. Playing the woman, Sophie Steer goes about her business on Charlotte Espiner’s detailed open-plan set – getting changed, replacing her tampon, frying an egg, skimming YouTube – as the dancers weave around the bed, roll on the plush red carpet, stalk the edges of the space, dance in the dead space of absence. As we watch, we put the pieces together – her partner has died.
The two worlds never acknowledge each other, but they do overlap and interlink. One dance syncs up with hold music on Steer’s phone. It’s like accidentally playing different songs on separate tabs, and finding they slot together with contrapuntal coincidence. Runacre-Temple’s choreography is sinewy, strong and supple, flitting from genre to genre – from Gene Kelly-esque swagger to balletic formality. And while the dancers’ function is never as crass or straightforward as representing Steer’s inner turmoil/dead partner/etc, it is a clear and significant choice to offset meticulous naturalism with its abstracted, interpretative opposite (Alex Fernandes’ lighting design sends a realist space reeling into ghostly waves of fading colour as the evening darkens – blue-green against violent purple). There are small repeated movements in the dance which mirror domestic actions performed by Steer (the folding of shirts, the straightening of a duvet), echoing like voices down a corridor. You see the dance first – abstracted movements – then the action, and suddenly it becomes clear that the two worlds have been speaking to each other all along, only over some great incommunicable gulf. Such is the feeling of grief: an unnamable, stalking presence which abides in private places.
There is, arguably, a third world, too – an eclectic soundtrack featuring ABBA, Bach and Scott Walker, amongst others. It could be a wedding playlist, or a catalogue of significant songs – clues to a relationship that now exists only in the lingering smell of bedsheets and clothes. The songs start with a jolt and cut out with jarring abruptness, as if they have a life of their own. The mood in the room never settles, sparse and empty one moment and energised by a driving beat the next. They are blasts of irony, sitting alongside the small sounds emitted from laptops and phones which enter like interruptions from the world outside this private cave of grief – the recorded voice of an HMRC phone directory, a YouTube tutorial on twerking, a bizarre pitch from Dragon’s Den, the sound effects of a Bop-It toy. We put the pieces together.
Amongst all this, Sophie Steer fizzles with suppressed intensity – her repetitive chores transform into rhapsodies of grief, but her face rarely breaks from a state of resting, impenetrable blankness. This blankness pervades the whole piece, and there’s something exquisitely bleak about it all – my friend compares it to sitting in front of a very simple, very sad painting for quite a long time. There’s no moment of emotional release, no flood of tears, no howl of pain. It ends with a phone call, a mumblecore stream of jargon, which is so strange it seems almost to break the rules of the play, or evade the audience-as-detective’s rationalising instinct. It’s an utterly, inexplicably devastating moment that made my insides crumple in on themselves.
Civlisation could easily be interpreted as a domestic show – a piece of private, personal concerns – but like Lands before it, I can’t help feeling there’s a bigger game at play. The title invites us to consider the world which surrounds this quarantined room, and the whispers of bureaucracy, finance and politics which enter the space seem to speak towards some wider sense of malaise, unsustainable strain or imminent collapse. Whatever it might be, it feels just beyond reach, like those invisible dancers – but with poise and precision, Civilisation conjures a dreadful kind of beauty.
Civilisation is on at Underbelly Cowgate until 25th August. More info and tickets here.