Reviews ManchesterNational Published 22 January 2020

Review: Sound Cistem at HOME, Manchester

‘How do you look?’: James Varney writes on the act of witnessing in Plaster Cast Theatre’s verbatim piece about trans and non-binary bodies.

James Varney
Lizzie Morris and Aydan Brouwers in Sound Cistem at HOME, Manchester. Photo: Plaster Cast Theatre.

Lizzie Morris and Aydan Brouwers in Sound Cistem at HOME, Manchester. Photo: Plaster Cast Theatre.

Most of the time after seeing a show I’m not in the mood for talking about it. I hate being asked what I think, I’m too busy feeling a mess of things to be able to put them into words, or thoughts. Ask me how I feel and I can at least be vague and affective when I reply. Any response to the question ‘how are you feeling?’ is a kind of honesty; your body answers for you.

Ayden Brouwers and Lizzie Morris perform Sound Cistem. A dance piece which they have choreographed, with a score of dance music intercut with sound clips from interviews with trans and non-binary people about dancing, their bodies, and their experiences of being trans in public spaces.

I’m sceptical of verbatim work. By which I mean that I can like it, but I’ve seen a lot of it which ends up exploitative. Verbatim work is slippery in its authorship – sometimes the agency of the theatre maker suppresses the voices they are presenting. There is curatorial work done to the interview excerpts in Sound Cistem; they have been shaped in a fashion. But the voices of Lizzie and Ayden being largely absent from the piece gives their interviewees a space. The movement of the two of them through the space is at once commenting on and shaped by the voices in the air. Because music and recorded voices are all we hear, they have consequence, over the stage, the performers, and the listeners. Maybe the audience Sound Cistem asks for is one of listeners. A portion of the interviews feature people talking about the fact of their existence, and how often it is denied. Sometimes witnesses are more important than audiences.

People used to write about sight as something created by beams, fired from our eyes. People with weak vision fired beams of less intensity, so could not see as clearly. People with strong vision fired beams from their eyes with such intensity you could not look directly at them. It’s a nice metaphor.

In one of the few audio clips of them speaking, Ayden and Lizzie ask the audience, “How do we look? How do you look?” ‘Look’ works in two directions. When we are an audience we beam ourselves outward, at the stage. We can only see using the selves we have. As an object of vision, Lizzie and Ayden are subjected to whatever an audience brings with them. As they move, we hear the experiences of trans and non-binary people’s performance of self. They talk about the way they are seen, the way they look and the way people look at them. Seeing and looking are more physical things than we might think. We all perform ourselves and we are seen and looked at with differing levels of violence. For Sound Cistem, gender is something projected just by looking.

In many ways, Sound Cistem is a single thing. Formally, it begins in the same place it finishes and I appreciate the simplicity of it. I sit here to listen. For this hour, that’s my job. The dance music, the movement, the voices and their captions hit me all at once. I’m not overwhelmed but I feel subsumed into the piece. Like being at a club, like being drunk or half-asleep the world happens at me. I don’t know if I’m changed by it. I don’t think I’ve been called to action, I’ve done what I’m supposed to by allowing it to happen at me.

There are parts where Sound Cistem is didactic – but it’s by proxy; these are interviews, these are things people said, and people are didactic, every day of their bloody lives. We shape the world by taking it in and by speaking into it. Sound Cistem proposes that our perception itself is didactic. Like asking a question in order to announce your own answer to it, sometimes we look at things to confirm they are what we expect.

You can think about reviewing like a scientific process, if you like. You can think about it as a way of measuring up the parts and assessing the success of a piece of theatre. But if reviewing is about dissecting then it’s a lost cause I don’t wish to be a part of. I see Sound Cistem as a research project on a continuum with other Queer projects like trans masc studies or queer zine library, it’s an archive. I could talk about ‘success’ or ‘worthiness’ but those are patronising words aren’t they. Why should I act like the world makes any more sense to me than anyone else. Sound Cistem is a record. It exists by virtue of the question being asked. It’s true.

Sound Cistem plays at HOME’s Push Festival until 22nd January. It tours to London, Worcester and Brighton until May 8th. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Sound Cistem at HOME, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Sam McElhattan

Written by Ayden Brouwers, Lizzie Morris

Cast includes Ayden Brouwers, Lizzie Morris

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