The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with Ava Wong Davies’ encounter with an unsettling physical theatre performance at the Edinburgh fringe.
Audio version by Hannah McPake:
My friend with the massive Excel spreadsheet tells me about the show halfway through Fringe, two days before I go home. “No, I’m done,” I say to them in line at the South Clerk Street Greggs. “I’ve had enough. I don’t have the stamina. I’m not Lyn. I need a lie down.”
“No, apparently it’s great,” they tell me, clutching a sausage roll to their chest. “It got one star from [redacted mainstream publication] so you know it’ll at least be interesting.” I book in, unable to resist one last hit.
Scordatura Theatre – a young company based in Manchester – have had some rising buzz over the past few years, with their credentials being confirmed by a short run at BAC back in March. This show, for what we were promised, their fourth, has been garnering a lot of four stars and a lot of two stars, and not much in between. They’re a group of four makers – two from dance backgrounds, one from a theatre background, and one composer. “this is a show about grief,” the copy on the Underbelly website reads. “this is a show about individuals and collectives.” There is no overt mention, but the climate crisis and COVID-19 hang heavy in Big Belly’s dank air.
It takes a while to remember just how to watch this kind of show. I’ve been spoiled by two weeks worth of new writing (which I love), all of which (for the most part) is pretty heavy on thick narrative drive and sturdy three act structure. for what we were promised is more of a collage of images, strung together and presented without comment. It is almost obstinately, obsessively languorous, stretching itself out into the corners of the space, meandering through various images, often stopping short in the middle of an idea and refusing to explain itself. I find myself grabbing onto various ideas and impressions, hoping they’ll grant me a smidge of clarity, a hint of linear understanding. Old watching habits die hard. Images cling like smoke on a sleeve. One of the performers runs a dying flower through their fingers, its petals curling brown at the edges. A theremin hums deep somewhere in the bowels of the space. There’s the familiar smell of haze, smeared through with blue and purple lights as a silhouetted body whirls through it like it’s trying to coat itself in colour. Shows like this still have the capacity to freak me out and cast me adrift, scrabbling desperately for a buoy.
And yet, its obtuseness works with a robust dramaturgy. There is a pervasive sense of anxiety to the piece – an almost incommunicable dread, a totalising fear of what might happen when the timer finally runs out – not that the company are gauche enough to include an actual clock onstage. There is a persistent dripping sound and it’s difficult to know if that’s part of the sound design or just part of Big Belly’s site specification, but it stains everything with a creeping disquiet. It’s Scordatura’s fourth piece, but you can still feel the echoes of their influences – a sprinkling of Hofesh Schecter here, a touch of Stan’s Cafe there – not that I mind. I’ve always enjoyed seeing companies wear their hearts and influences on their sleeves – it gives a sense of history and homage, of where they see themselves sitting within their own personal canon. The company run concentric circles around the space, their axes growing ever smaller, lights dimming incrementally. You can see the veins popping out of their necks, the sweat collecting in collar bones, the whites of their eyes flashing. They don’t look at each other, but you wish they would. It treads a careful line between flux and inertia – the text, written collectively by all four company members, is cut through with stuttering, half-finished sentences and aborted yet startlingly vivid images. The text breaks through the fabric of the piece like an intrusive thought. At times, it’s like the company have crawled right into the centre of a panic attack. And then there are moments of such precise, unexpected beauty and meditation that it takes my breath away. For so much of the piece, they are totally atomised elements, that when they come together, it’s an exhale of relief. They play a chopped and screwed up version of a French pop song from the 60s. They do an utterly sincere, in-no-way-ironic two-step. Two couples, clumsily circling the space, staring at each other. The reverb bounces off the damp walls and ekes its way into your bones.
After the show, I go out and bump into a friend who came in late. We smoke under George IV bridge. Towards Grassmarket, you can see that the sky is pink and blue, run through with thin grey clouds. We talk all in a rush, words rippling out first with thoughts playing catch-up. I try to feel out what we’ve just seen, my words peppered with “but”s and “well”s and “maybe”s. I tip into frustration at one part which I find particularly difficult to parse. I gesticulate wildly, ash falling off my cigarette. My friend makes a simple, generous point, and I feel a little ashamed for getting so worked up. We start walking up towards Bedlam. The sky deepens, and for what we were promised begins to unfurl itself.