The pleasure in Rat, Rose Bird comes from the attention to detail and the minute craft devoted to the smallest prop and backdrop. Each element is finely crafted and polished; where often audiences expect to see the odd un-sanded edge or unpeeled label there are none, and the attention to detail is striking. The wheeled chest of drawers that the show is contained in and pulled out of like a magic trick could not be used for anything else and folds and opens in unexpected ways. Shiny bronze labels point to what is to come in the rest of the show. The plaques read ‘The Sea of Love’, ‘Living Room’ and ‘For the End’ and glint in the footlights at the front of the stage.
The performance hinges on 2006, declared by Ghelani to have been ‘a bad year’ and ranges widely across love, heartbreak, domesticity, culture and history. Glimpses of a story are afforded to the audience without ever resolving themselves. There are oblique references to the break up of a relationship and the straddling of cultures. A hint of a death. Implied infidelity. None are properly qualified but each exists within the framework of the piece and each informs the comparatively innocent actions happening on stage. The mixing of symbolic fluids and the construction of a dead rat living-room diorama are given a sense of weight and history. The use of the dead rats (pet shop snake food) is particularly poignant. Although taxidermy has become something of a recognisable trope in live art, here the once living animals are presented in a different tone with a different intention. It’s the taxidermy of a stately home, a stuffed animal ornament that sits in a house, rather than a grisly talisman. There is no scientific or clinical air about their inclusion; they do not provoke unease or disgust. Whilst the use of dead animals might be expected to suggest violence, or disease, or strange ritual, Ghelani actively dismisses this with her declaration that these are bought rats. Young things raised to be eaten, they were gassed, probably, we are told ‘never having stepped outside’. Far from feeling horror at these dead things in their tiny bed, they are sweet and gentle, contained in the miniature room that Ghelani constructs from the contents of the appropriate drawer.
With magician hand gestures and almost-dance routines, Sheila Ghelani’s piece engages strongly with the conventions of vaudeville and light entertainment – the deep red curtains and tuxedoed performer opening up a sense of humour in the dark subject matter. It is refreshing to be reminded of the satisfaction of swishing curtains, and to see the chorus of screens revealed each time they part. Repetition lends importance to tiny actions, and by the third time the hammy version of ‘Sea of Love’ is played, the tittering has subsided and the longing and emptiness of the song comes through. This is similar in operation to another piece of Ghelani’s work, Covet Me, Care for Me. There a saccharine Frankie Avalon tune is looped endlessly to soundtrack the breaking of fine glass hearts. It is this reframing of what appears familiar, or safe, or recognisable, that unsettles and engages.
The contrast of seemingly vacuous pop with dark undercurrents of emotion is a common one, from David Lynch to HBO, but effective nonetheless and especially here. These contrasts add up to surprising level of emotional engagement, from the release of the water pistol discharging mixed fluids across the ‘2006’ sign to the unhurried construction of a garden between the proscenium arch of the curtains. The ending is gentle and contemplative. As the audience leaves, we are all offered a present. Each person takes away a tiny plastic box containing two sugar rose petals and decorated with an individual silver design. A unique gift from the artist that is the show in microcosm; tiny delicate sweets presented quietly with importance and ceremony.