Adrian Howells’ particular brand of live art promotes intimacy. His performance work creates time for reflection; a place of safety away from the coldness of the contemporary world. His best known piece, Foot Washing for the Sole, has toured the world; it takes a simple act, that of washing the feet of stranger and turns it into experience of great delicacy and comfort. The Pleasure of Being: Washing / Feeding / Holding, as the name implies, saw audience members being bathed, fed and held, all in an intimate one-on-one environment.
Howells’ latest work, May I Have the Pleasure … ?, differs from his recent offerings in that the piece has been created for an audience of many rather than just for a single person. The premise is a simple one: Howells has been best man on no fewer than eight occasions; he is something of a wedding expert, and yet he has never been in a long term relationship. This new piece meditates on the feelings of isolation which such a situation can create.
Having taken a lift to the top floor of Edinburgh’s Point Hotel, the audience is greeted by a room decked out like a wedding reception at the end of the night: there are empty wine glasses, flat balloons and slightly wilting table decorations. What follows is a series of monologues, wedding videos and reminiscences about Howells’ past: as a small boy afraid of crowds, as an older man going through cognitive behavioural therapy for his depression, as a best man to a groom with whom he was in love.
The audience members, sitting at round tables, are invited to brain-storm their ideas about what makes a wedding; later they are invited to choose a wedding song to listen to, during which Howells picks an audience member with whom to dance.
As gentle and thoughtful as this piece is, I couldn’t help feeling that the intimate atmosphere Howells was trying to create was continually undermined by the size of the group he was performing for. In one-on-one theatre there is a complicit agreement formed between performer and audience member; their relationship is continually being negotiated by both as the piece progresses and engagement by both parties is a necessity. Howells is a master at creating an environment where individuals feel safe and secure, but he struggles with a larger group. There were drunken audience members and others who chatted throughout or did not listen at key moments. There also was a sense that many audience members had stories to share, but there was not time for everyone to do so. As a result, moments of potential emotional power ended up feeling a bit ridiculous, particularly the sequence in which Howells freezes into positions designed to reflect certain moments from his past.
The piece as a whole is touching, but it dwells too firmly on Howells’ own experiences without fully opening out its themes. Like one of the (almost unwatchably awkward) videos that form part of the production, Howells focuses on himself to the extent that the audience drift out of view. Maybe given more time this piece will develop, and Howells will build on what’s there, but at the moment though enjoyable, it’s a curiously unengaging experience.