1: In the beginning was the word
At first it’s like squeezing on to a bouncy castle: the entrance is formed by two inflatable walls, a narrow passage between them. Turns out it’s not the bowels of the theatre we’re entering but a vast black tent whose curves and ridges have a different human quality: maybe it’s like the roof of the mouth, maybe the inside of a vagina.
On stage are two men, one wearing a suit and holding pictures, the other scruffier and barking words. Their conversation has the feel of a sight, or interpretation, or intelligence test: can you recognise an elk, a squirrel, a rabbit? But then the second, scruffier man says: “I shall call this one zebra.” And suddenly it makes all the difference whether we’re sitting inside a mouth or inside a vagina. It’s the difference between life beginning with a word, and the word being male (to use the gender binaries of Judeo-Christianity that underpin patriarcy), or life beginning with the body, and the body being female.
We all know what a social system that begins with God, God’s perfection, God’s masculinity, God’s deed, God’s word, does to anyone who isn’t male in that heavenly image: be that women, people of colour, people whose mental processes or physical appearance differs from what’s conventionally accepted as standard, or normal. We know, because we live in it. And because we live in it, there are ways in which we don’t recognise it, or care, or do anything to stop it happening. Simply by living in it, we remake it. (Arguably, an instance of that might be using the word “we” when really talking about – another oversimplification – white, middle-class, able-bodied people.)
In re-creating the creation myth, Back to Back Theatre disrupt it: disrupt the residues that persist, and the perceptions they engender. Power zaps like an electric current between the two men: first one is in charge of creation, then the other. Zap and the younger, scruffier one shapes the first humans, in his own image, both of them wonky, both of them flawed. The older is dazzled, the younger dismissive: “They’re not very intelligent,” he snips. Zap and the eating of the fruit becomes an act of rebellion, performed with slow deliberation: they’re choosing to do this to access power of their own. And as the older god falls into decline, a tantalising question lingers: who decides who has agency, autonomy, the right to self-expression, in this stratified society that functions through the enforcement of inequality?
2: Interlude (one)
My first encounter with Back to Back Theatre, a company of neurodiovergent and disabled people based in Victoria, Australia, was watching Ganesh vs the Third Reich, also a LIFT show, in 2014. And it’s typical of the warped perception I’m talking about that the performer I remember most clearly from it is David Woods, of the British duo Ridiculusmus. Playing the director of a group of neurodivergent and disabled performers, trying to devise a work about Ganesh travelling to the Third Reich to reclaim the swastika, Woods was riveting: not least because he was also playing an SS officer, and blurred the edges of both characters until it was impossible to tell one’s violence from the other’s. There was something skin-prickle astonishing, ice-bucket awakening, about the way this work challenged its audience. How do you look, how do you think, what do you assume, what do you expect? All these questions are fundamental to how Back to Back make their work.
3: The language of the body
The tent roof draws back with a gasp to reveal that we’re sitting on the stage facing out to the auditorium of the Barbican, empty but for three people, cleaning. Their supervisor stomps in and an argument ensues, because the workers want promotion and the supervisor’s attitude is that “you don’t deserve shit for existing”. With a shock I realise: that’s what I remember from Ganesh vs the Third Reich. That clarity, that violence, that interest in absorbing the voice of power, the better to transmute it.
That voice of power is whispering between your ears, because this is a binaural show, heard through headphones. It’s leaning in to Simon Laherty, the figure of Adam, far away in the empty auditorium, warning him not to get involved with Sarah Mainwaring, his Eve, because “it’s inappropriate”. I remember that complexity from Ganesh too: the way the performers dig below the bland and casual way people police each other (workplace relationships can cause difficulty: fair enough) to expose the unacceptable way in which people with disabilities are policed (the idea that it’s inappropriate for disabled people to form relationships at all).
Defiant still, of course Simon/Adam and Sarah/Eve refuse to listen. The courtship scene between them is flat, unremarkable, mundane: all they want to do is “have a coffee, have a kiss, all that stuff”. You can teach me how to cook. When I’m sick, you can look after me. And again, it’s whispered in your ears, through the headphones, one voice breathing into the left, the other to the right. The flawed and wonky body being coveted, propositioned, is your body. The courtship is beside you, across from you, the same unremarkable romance happening all over the world. And maybe the only way we’ll survive the systems tearing humanity apart is with these flat declarations of love: love as mysterious and magical as it is mundane.
4: Interlude (two)
What does destruction sound like?
Is it a roar and a rumble that makes the room rattle and the seat shake, bass notes growling as they pulse through your pores, through your veins?
Is it the echo of the crash that might resound if the walls around you crumbled?
The whistle of the social fabric collapsing into a heap?
Buried beneath, barely perceptible, the sound of families torn apart and people dying at sea. The despair of people declared fit to work, the despair of people assumed unfit to work. Incidence of suicide rising as access to disability benefit falls.
What does institutionalised spite, immorality, injustice sound like?
The inevitability of death, director Bruce Gladwin writes in his programme note, was one of the starting points for Lady Eats Apple. But the inevitability of death doesn’t make it equalising. Disparity shapes death too.
5: No language at all
In Ganesh it was a simple plastic sheet drawn across the stage, projections conveying the journey of the young god from his fecund home in India to the cruel heart of a self-detonating Europe. In Lady Eats Apple it’s the drawing back of the plastic tent to reveal – not the auditorium, yet – another plastic tent. White this time, the blank background for a series of projections. Lines swim and scuttle and converge across it, a hundred Bridget Riley paintings rippling overhead, finally clearing into a spring-cloud sky. I remember when my children were younger, starting to read the stories of cultures not my own, moving past Greek myths and Bible stories to the folklore of indigenous Australians, native Americans, tales from Asia and Africa, tracing filigree threads of connection between them, marvelling at the similar ways in which humans across the globe had looked up into the white-flecked blue, out across the shimmering sea, and sought to explain this immensity to each other.
Lady Eats Apple holds that immensity in one palm and the smallness of life in the other. Having taken our attention far away, up into the distance of the auditorium, they bring it a close again, to the body of the first god, mortal now, fallen, collapsed on stage and on the point of death. Can the others help him? Revive him? Do they have that knowledge, that power? They fumble, uncertain, stymied by shock; far from rising to the moment like cinematic heroes, they let minutes drag as they struggle to work out what to do. This is it. This is us. Stumbling from one moment to the next, trying to deal with whatever is thrown at us, until the moment when death comes for us too.
In the queue for the cloakroom afterwards, I overheard another audience member, face furrowed by disappointment, complain to their partner that the show had been boring, the dialogue banal. Oh love, I thought. You have no idea what you’ve just missed.
Lady Eats Apple was performed as part of LIFT 2018. Click here for more details.