Etymologically, nostalgia means a pained return home. But sometimes we can yearn for a time before our own or a place we’ve never been that somehow resonates with our sense of self, our present, and our identity. The pain then becomes a symptom of the two-fold experience of familiarity and alienation: the feeling of recognition coupled with the knowledge that such a world, such a home, is closed off to us. Nostalgia can be an effective and affective way of connecting to history, but can also rose-tint to such romantic extremes that the world becomes saturated and delusional.
Simon Blow’s The Past is a Tattooed Sailor is a meditation on nostalgia that for Blow seems deeply nostalgic. Based on his relationship with his uncle Stephen Tennant, one of London’s Bright Young Things, the piece ventures through past and further past. Protagonist Joshua (Jojo Macari), a loosely veiled Blow, and his lover Damien (Denholm Spurr) have multiple meetings with Uncle Napier (Bernard O’Sullivan) in his dynastic home. Napier’s own reminiscing leads to the ghosts of his history, Young Napier (Nick Finnegan) and his mother Helena (Elizabeth George), invading the present and raising questions about the value of beauty, love, and lineage.
Having rubbed shoulders (and more) with Sassoon, Cocteau, Woolf, Beaton, and Eliot, Tennant/Napier’s life is splendidly enticing but Blow might be too close to the source material. The many references to London’s cultural elite do little more than root Napier’s life in a shimmering past, and fail to fully explore the meaningfulness of fame. Romantic aphorisms and Peter Pan references pepper the script, but when it matters, the inherent nostalgia clouds instead of clarifies.
The erratic pacing of scenes, some strikingly short and others arguably redundant, inhibits the characters from forming nuanced relationships. The numerous shifts of setting and scene changes create a snippet-like watch that meanders through a sort-of-narrative, but lacks a continuous thread or arc. While O’Sullivan delivers a lyrical and self-obsessed Uncle Napier, and Spurr’s Damien is fiery and irreverent, Macari’s Joshua wanders without a direction.
Napier wishes for his former glory, his beauty, his tattooed sailors. But these are not only products of a bygone era, they are also hallucinations. The reality was different. His longing is undermined by a past encounter with sailor Jean Baptiste, played by Spurr, whose impatience and grit goes against Napier’s desire for erotic thrills. This scene at the beginning of the second act is Blow’s best examination of how the sculpted and manipulated past can act as a false crutch for the present. It also briefly points out the ability of the priviledged to essentialise when romanticizing groups of people.
It’s a shame that while Blow’s The Past is a Tattooed Sailor ruminates, it fails to resonate. It looks on at an enticing past with intrigue, pain, and longing, but it never quite establishes its own present, its own presence, and its own home.
The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor is on until 27th August 2016. Click here for more details.