Reviews Exeter Published 21 November 2014

Life Forces

Exeter Phoenix ⋄ 18th November 2014

The body never forgets.

Belinda Dillon

How often does a nebulous recollection from childhood instigate a search through the attic for a half-remembered item? For Jane Mason it was her father’s old slide projector, which plays a key part in her new performance piece, Life Forces – a collaborative exploration of family and the narratives that we build around our identity within it. Thoughtful and absorbing, the piece demands concerted effort from its audience, and rewards close attention with a tantalising glimpse into how the connections that make up our existence might be formed, in all their fragility, and as such lingers in the imagination long after the final moments.
In the space, Mason uses her father’s projector as both a source of light and a kind of time machine to place herself into images from the past. She becomes both the baby on the rug but also the pair of adult knees just visible at the edge of the picture; she sits at the bottom of a flight of shadowed stairs. A photograph of one of her artist father’s maquettes – a construction that could be a pylon, a rocket or a rickety pier – becomes tangible in the space when she empties a box of the waxed paper Artstraws he worked with onto the floor. Hitting the floor, bouncing into position, they evoke the I-Ching yarrow stalks; but rather than reforming her father’s constructions, Mason climbs inside their mass, as if surrounded by her own unique choices. From these moments, the narrative strands expand and spread out to create a framework that holds the piece together, not always clearly, but in a way that challenges the audience to make their own connections. 
The handling and positioning of props is integral to the piece’s interrogation of content and form. Both Mason and co-writer/performer Phil Smith choose and manipulate each object – whether the straws or the larger versions of them that later represent beach defences or boundaries or a forest – with precision and intent. Occasionally, the moving of props from one place to another, or from the side of the performance space into play and then out again, interrupts the pace, but it also becomes clear that what happens in-between is of as much importance as the larger movements elsewhere in the piece; for here, it is implied, is where the real choices are made. 
Smith is a strong presence, perhaps a paternal one, at times merely standing, observing, then becoming a source of solace into whose arms Mason leaps, then a joint bearer of burdens, then a co-builder of a forest. Their relationship is fluid; the specifics of it are unimportant. During the longest movement sequence, their actions reflect each other’s and respond, as Mason’s increasingly joyful measuring of the space is echoed in Smith’s more contained gestures of calculation and assessment (the use of a plumb line is repeated throughout the piece); they move in unison, each presenting their own quality of action, then dovetail and coincide, before spinning out into their own actions once more. The sequence reaches a crescendo then quietens, and the movements contract, Smith’s gestures reducing to one hand within the other, his fingers playing out the motions in miniature. 
This notion of expansion and contraction repeats and reprises, as do numerous gestures, gradually gathering references. An animated circle projected onto the back of the space swells and recedes; standing against the back wall, Jane becomes the tail of a giant Q – what the questions should we ask of our past? And will what we hear change our own recollections? The shifts in focus, the expansion and contraction, larger actions to smaller gestures, all evoke those particular qualities of memory and identity. 
Sections of text bring in further narrative strands, but also interrogate the making of the work: Mason questions her choice of movements, her process, her intentions, and their relevance. “I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she states, as her movements become traditionally elegant. “I suppose I wanted it to be a bit more ‘danced’.” These moments also introduce a sense of humour, for while this is a contemplative, yearning piece, it is also playful. One of the large straws/pipes stands out, its end capped with a connecting joint like a drainpipe; its positioning in a bucket of sand evokes a periscope standing on the shore, and yet it is also vaguely comical, like a wink toward the absurd.
Memory and identity are so mutable and fluid – and so inextricably entwined – that there’s little chance of holding onto them in any tangible way. And yet the past presses itself on us at every moment. Life Forces examines this paradox, this process of fitting oneself into family narratives, of trying to interpret and remember, while each individual holds their own strand, coming together around shared objects that resonate. And while the mind is constantly reworking events, the body never forgets, and forever holds and plays out every emotion, every experience, if only we’re able to listen to what it tells us.


Belinda Dillon

Originally from London, Belinda is an editor and writer now living in Exeter. She goes to as much theatre as the day job will allow. When not sitting in the dark, or writing about sitting in the dark, she likes to drink wine, read 19th-century novels and practice taxidermy. Your cat is very beautiful. Is it old?