The opening double-bill of the ongoing NOW17 festival at The Yard Theatre takes two very different approaches to the question of mortality. In Richard Dodwell’s PLANES, it’s the absence that death brings in the suicide of his sister; in Sylvia Rimat’s This Moment Now, it’s the presence that conception bestows on the unborn child in her womb. Both halves of the evening pose questions that will never be answered: How long do we each have to live? Does my child get a smaller number of years than I do, or will he or she outlive me? Why did my sister choose to die? Where do we go from here?
Dodwell describes PLANES as ‘a live tuning’, and it does feel like an extended tone poem, relying on the evocations of sound and video imagery over his own performance delivery and narrative. He pierces the fog-filled room with the beam of a high-powered flashlight when he enters it, and as the piece unfolds we realise he is still feeling around in the dark for answers. His quiet eulogy to his sister and confessional episodes about his own life and sexuality are punctuated by fragments of video and the plaintive, dissonant notes of the live piano and violin, accompanied by the fizz of static on the walkie-talkie he cradles throughout the piece. Knitting these plot lines together is the metaphor of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the plane that vanished in 2014 while enroute to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and has never been found. Just as investigators have tried and failed to piece together the scattered evidence of the plane’s disappearance, Dodwell has no answers for his sister’s death even as he rummages through memories of his childhood and her struggles with borderline personality disorder.
It’s often difficult to gauge how much ‘authentic’ emotion to display to an audience about a deeply personal, scarring event – what might be interpreted as ‘too much’, and therefore ‘histrionic’ and ‘over-performed’; or what might be misconstrued as ‘too little’, and therefore ‘unfeeling’ or ‘impersonal’. There are no rules for grief, and Dodwell chooses to talk about his sister and their relationship in a soft, self-conscious monotone, removing emotion from the equation altogether. This means that there is a stasis that eventually settles over the piece, the sort of suspended animation one might feel mid-journey on a long flight when, gazing out the window, it isn’t certain at first glance whether one is moving or standing still. This purgatorial sensation means it is sometimes difficult to focus on Dodwell’s long streams of prose, even if his sentences are often very beautiful. “4am over the Atlantic is prime time for tears,” he says, quietly, “The lights dimmed in sleep – or perhaps death.” It can be very powerful to deal with trauma in an understated way, but this also means that the audience has less of a grasp on what propels the work forward.
The rhythmic leap from PLANES to This Moment Now is a large one; This Moment Now opens with the clack of four metronomes both in sync and out of sync, and drummer Chris Langton plunging into an energetic solo, setting the mood for Rimat’s quirky meditation on life. His complex rhythmic interludes continue to form the backbone of the work. There’s a different brand of self-consciousness at work here, with Rimat mining her physical awkwardness – she’s 4½ months pregnant – for charming visual humour. The metaphors for her production are more abstract ones, drawing from a simplified version of the second law of thermodynamics (largely dealing with entropy), as well as Einstein’s theory of relativity, and applying it to how we experience time. Some of these ‘manipulations’ of time are baldly gimmicky (e.g. stage manager Alasdair Jones asking us to set our watches to an atomic clock, or Rimat telling us she will slow down the performance time so that time passes slower in the room), but Rimat is an endearing performer, and even if her time-related excavations only just brush the surface, they are filled with joy and delight. Some of the most engaging, thoughtful questions posed by the piece come from her video interviews with an eight-year-old girl and a 92-year-old woman, and their markedly different perceptions of time, as well as their demonstrations of what a little bit of time (a girl at the beginning of her life) and a lot of time (a grandmother close to the end of hers) do to the human body.
But beneath all the trimmings is a moving question about the new journey she is embarking on, one as a mother-to-be. Can it even be called a ‘journey’, if the human perception of a ‘moment’ is just three seconds? Rimat positions herself between the dancing images of 8-year-old Rose and 92-year-old Eileen, and as she begins to dance with abandon, we begin to wonder: Is her body still growing – or beginning to break down? She asks us to ponder how much time we have left, and as the hour-long show draws to a close, I realise I have given an hour of my life to her; but she’s also given an hour to me, in exchange.
The lack of a finite, known journey through life frames both PLANES and This Moment Now, but both are less concerned with journeys and more preoccupied with turning points, pivots, moments and decisions. Perhaps ‘journey’ is the wrong metaphor for life, they suggest. In inviting us to participate, to listen, and even to drink tea, they seem to say: perhaps we ought to simply be.
Week 1 of NOW17 is on until 4th February 2017. Click here for more details.