In a sunny garden, enveloped by birdsong, Bill and Gill talk about stories. They have a shared past – possibly as colleagues, or teacher and student, or perhaps more – that hovers at the edges of their interactions, hinting at something unspoken, unresolved, unrequited.
At Bill’s request, Gill is visiting and has brought tales about the origins of language, about miscommunication and misunderstanding. As they pass the threads of myth and parable back and forth, collaborating and disagreeing, encouraging and correcting, the pattern of their own entwined narrative is revealed, and we, too, are pulled inside this subtly moving paean to the power of story.
They begin at the beginning, with flood myths from around the world, and as Gill takes tentative steps into the telling – at times deferring to Bill, occasionally challenging his interruptions – we glimpse the structure of their relationship in all its give and take, surge and retreat. While Gill balks at the ease with which Bill claims ownership of the most ancient stories, by amending details and altering characters, she also questions the intrinsic patriarchal slant – where are the tales with women at their centre, shaped by women’s experiences?
But Bill, who is increasingly infirm, has a specific story he wants – needs – to tell: Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. In a way that reflects the power balance in their own relationship, Bill takes control of the narrative; when he is intermittently gripped by seizures, during which he disappears from the moment, as if dropping out of the present, Gill steps in to support him, and they create the story together.
From start to finish, this performance is elegantly structured and beautifully paced, with a script that revels in the power of the word to conjure vast landscapes and epic endeavour alongside the pulsing of the human heart. With segues into neurology – the search for ‘poetry in the prefrontal cortex’ – that juxtapose vibrant images of neurons in the brain and electricity whizzing across synapses, making connections and combinations like ideas fizzing between people crammed into the expanding city of Babel, the narrative is at once rational and scientific and brimming with passion. And it’s absolutely gripping, Bill steadily building the story, pulling it towards its conclusion, shaping it just as Nimrod’s followers placed brick upon brick in their attempt to reach the stars.
Stripped right back – and in that simplicity managing to pack philosophy and science, myth and magic, laughter and heartbreak into a riveting 80 minutes – the strength of this piece comes from the union of intelligent writing and the word-perfect power of the performances. It explores how the stories that appeal to us, that speak to the deepest parts of us, are the ones that reflect our situation, our needs and our desires, and affect the very structure of our brains.