Little dears asking ‘whyyyyyyy’ evoke a range of emotions in adults, normally ones like ‘wanting to lob this child into the canal’ or ‘it’s definitely nearly bedtime even if it’s 11am’. But if there’s one man who might have had more patience with this passage of childhood, it’s Richard Feynman. The British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why (premiering at Mayfest in Bristol and playing later in the year at the Southbank Centre in London), takes the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist’s mindrambles into the last of the Five Ws as its starting point for an evocative work combining live music, dance and snippets of text by Feynman.
Like Feynman, The Nature of Whyisn’t interested in just incessantly asking questions, it’s concerned with the inevitable holes that perforate any given answer: like the real ‘why’ asked when someone dies that can’t be answered by ‘the car hit them’ or ‘their heart stopped beating’. Concurrently, it’s about the ‘whys’ that multiply in number the more questions a person asks and answers they receive when trawling through laboratories or libraries.
Outside of the Feynman quotes that flicker in an out of the performance, the ‘whys’ being asked by the work itself are connected with art and performance, specifically ‘why do we stage theatre or classical musical as we normally do?’ In its inaugural performance at Mayfest, The Nature of Whyis performed in the giant vacuum of black space that makes up the Bristol Old Vic’s stage, with the audience all in the same space as the performers, including a small orchestra seated or standing with their backs to the traditional auditorium.
Essentially, it turns the BOV space inside out, giving the audience the forbidden view of the theatre they never normally get. Over the years I’ve seen a few things performed using this space in the BOV (often Mayfest events) and it always feels a bit like trespassing, a bit like walking on the hallowed ground where performers and directors, but never audiences (and definitely not critics) are allowed to tread. On a less existentially panicked note, it also means you get a good view of the beautiful BOV interior, and the odd contrast the historic, decorative sweep of seats have with the vast, high stage space.
The intention of Caroline Bowditch and Charles Hazlewood’s production is to disrupt the format of performance and how it’s received by an audience. Musicians and dancers duck and weave between the standing audience members – who are encouraged to continuously move – with the little pebbles of sound plashing down between people as they go. It’s exactly the sort of performance I’m theoretically completely on board with, and fascinated by, but in practice I find inhibiting and paradoxically distracting. The idea is that physically being a part of a performance will result in audiences being mentally subsumed into it too – ideally in a more powerful way than they would otherwise watching it from a seated position.
Ironically, I often find that being ‘a part of’ a performance makes me so gut-twistingly self-conscious that I end up far less involved with the work. I think these types of performance (hello, my old foe ‘immersive theatre’) privilege the extroverts of society – the people who might genuinely want to end a show dancing along on stage with the music – rather than the introverts who enjoy going to the theatre or cinema because it gives them the chance to dissolve into the dark whilst enjoying – if the piece of theatre is good enough – being swallowed whole by what’s on stage. A brief reprieve from the awareness of inhabiting an anxious, cumbersome physical case.
The amount a person can get from simply watching, or listening, to a performance shouldn’t be under-estimated. One of the great things about The Nature of Why (and this might read like a contradiction to what’s just been said) is the proximity of the performers, which means you can see in minute detail the movements of the dancers, the twisting, clambering motions their bodies make as they attempt to manoeuvre themselves around the maze of audience members. Like with seeing the BOV the wrong way around, this closeness has a transgressive edge to it; you’re being invited to really see another human being – in this case a dancer – in a way that would normally be too invasive because it violates the rules we have about appropriate distances between people in the ‘real world’ and in theatre.
If there’s a single thing on earth more suitable for contemplation of endless ‘whys’ then it’s the human body. The muscles, the tissues, the valves, the blood going in the right direction around and around and around. The unfathomable idea that a lump of grey matter could be the source of musical compositions, choreography or, in Feynman’s case, the infinite enquiries of science. It’s all why, why, why.
The Nature of Why is on at the Southbank Centre on 5 September 2018. Click here for more details.