The title of Massive Owl’s show, the first in another of Flare Festival’s double bills, is a nod to the town in Stephen King’s novella The Body and its film adaptation Stand By Me. Castle Rock zooms in on Ray, the missing boy whose death is the catalyst for King’s narrative. Here, he gets a voice and a backstory. Inspired by Evel Knievel, Ray wants to do something impossible and unforgettable. People will call him crazy, but he thinks he’s brave.
Storytelling, though, plays second string to atmosphere. When you boil it down, there’s relatively little narrative – and even less dialogue – in this compelling 60 minutes of theatre. It builds, instead, with layers of tension and suggestion. Pedal-looped, overlapping vocals and the percussive rattle of hand-held shakers texture a simple yet potent soundscape. For much of the show, the only source of light is a small projector, manipulated by the performers so that its glowing rectangle stretches across the floor and climbs, tilting, up the back wall, framing the figures on stage at odd, unsettling angles.
There’s a hint of Action Hero in Massive Owl’s very British dissection of American popular culture, and echoes of Sleepwalk Collective (whose Sammy Metcalfe contributed some of the show’s music) in their trippy sound and visuals. But they also make a mark in their own right, with some of the most distinctive and ingenious stage imagery I’ve seen on this scale. Shadows, cutting across the light of the projector, play a prominent and haunting role, as do spare injections of colour against the white backdrop. Everything is low-fi, but without the well-worn, scrappy DIY aesthetic of much contemporary performance. Instead it’s stylish and coolly detached – right up to the moment when it reaches out a fist to grip your heart.
Movement is the link between Castle Rock and the second show in the double bill, Simon de Winne’s one-man dance piece Baardeman. Massive Owl’s physicality is measured and precise, conveying with small movements the rush of a train or the leap of a deer through the forest. De Winne, by contrast, flings his body around the stage with abandon. He begins in darkness, wearing nothing but his pants, his arms and legs flailing in the gloom. When the lights come up, it’s almost as though we’ve caught him out as he boogies unself-consciously in his bedroom.
It made me think of that phrase that gets repeated ad nauseam on inspirational posters and those twee little signs you can buy to hang up in your kitchen: dance like no one’s watching. That seems to be de Winne’s aim as he throws his limbs around the space. Some gestures feel considered, contained in their expressiveness. Others are messy and sprawling, less like dance and more like shapes de Winne is trying out in the moment, seeing what does and doesn’t work.
These shambolic sequences are punctuated with moments of stillness, as de Winne sits to the side of the space and plays short snippets of music. This music is always in between the dancing, never during. The pauses create little pools of calm, contrasting with the often visible effort of the movement.
As a whole, though, I’m not sure what to take from it. With its stripped back staging and unadorned movement, it’s the sort of piece that either speaks to you or doesn’t. For me, it’s the latter. During the drawn-out strings of gestures, I find my mind wandering and have to keep wrenching myself back to what’s happening on stage. After the sustained tension of Castle Rock, Baardeman falls a little flat.
For more of the Flare 2017 programme, click here.