We’re greeted with a hello as we enter. Common Salt is unlike most performance that I am used to, like entering a lecture, or a support meeting. In the centre of the room is a large rectangular table draped with a grey cloth, silver tassels around its feet. A small easel. An Anglepoise lamp.
There’s something of a war room about the set up. Sue Palmer reads out of a thick script binder and slickly removes photocards from the easel. Sheila Ghelani pushes figurines and objects out onto the table with a long wooden stick, like moving battleships on a map. But in the close darkness and the spotlight of the Anglepoise, the pervading feeling is the opposite of anything military. Instead of strategy and offensives, this is all about piecing fragments together, tracing forgotten histories and connecting dots. Or following a maze hedge, as they frame it. Assembling something whole, or close to it, out of centuries of Imperial, corporate and human destruction.
‘This song is a la-
Ghelani plays the Shruti box – a bellow-based instrument that unleashes low drones. The songs they sing have a wry distance that takes me by surprise, words neatly clipped so as to make you guess at what syllable might come next. It’s a knowing distance, maybe. The pair started researching the show in 2014, when they visited Hampton Court Maze and found at its centre, not a legendary island, but only an “awful silver sign”. This is an exploration of colonialism and the legacy of forgotten things, via salt, and its impact on the riches of Britain’s present day. So, ‘This song is a la-ment’. Makes sense.
The performance rises out of itself, quite like the journey they undertook to make it. The text, spoken by Ghelani and Palmer in turn, sometimes together, moves in images. The first ever hedge maze created which you could properly get lost in. The long lost salt tax hedge constructed by the East India Company, which travelled down the middle of India. The many and various animals owned by Eliza Brightwen whose love of nature encouraged others to ‘look carefully’. At first I strain to see how or if these things are connected.
From another perspective though, semantic links disguised as homonyms propel the piece. From maze hedges to land boundary hedges (sometimes fences rather than literal hedges), to hedge funds and corporations, of which the East India Company was the first ancestor. The hedge in hedge fund is a semantic extension from the act of making a hedge, surrounding with a barricade – a concrete word made symbolic when the land boundary hedges were introduced, which in turn created the first landless peasants, and changed private property forever. Loops and links abound. I suspect their excavation could go on for years, sifting through sludge and ashes for the live sinews, connecting to the flexing muscle of Today’s World.
The show-and-tell format is fascinating. You pay attention to objects differently to how you pay attention to people. You have to put in all the work with objects, they’re giving you nothing but their Being. There’s a refreshing aspect to looking at a bird’s nest or a plastic tree. Soon, swiftly and delicately, the once empty table becomes populated with fragments of a story.
With all these fragments, and despite the massive pile of it on the table, it almost slips by me unconsidered, the significance of the salt. The indispensability of salt in our diets. The callousness of the British taking control over it and taxing Indians on it. Gandhi and followers precipitating Indian independence by harvesting their own salt from the sea. How easily we tune out of human realities when we’re given facts and stats of a not-so-distant time. What about the landless peasants they mentioned? Is the island at the end of the maze the UK or is it ourselves, when we’re alone? “Nothing,” was Ghelani’s father’s reply when she asked him what he knew of the East India Company.
The heart of this show is in taking lost things and making them seen – by speaking them into being, by turning over the soil to find the lost words. It has the brown/green, ferny familiarity of a woodland walk, and the hearty comfort of a cup of tea once you’ve made it home, to think and wonder about all you have felt, heard and seen. How do we know…how do we decide, I wonder, what is worth remembering?
Common Salt was at Attenborough Arts Centre on 6th March. It tours the UK until 18th May. More info here.