On the night of the January 31st, 1953, a storm beginning in the North Sea broke over the coasts of the Netherlands, England, Scotland and Belgium, claiming the lives of more than 2,500 people. Shorelines, an international collaboration between composer Oliver Coates, director Josh Armstrong and the Netherlands’ Ragazze Quartet, is a powerfully affective memorial to this event, as well as a wonderfully porous meditation on the lived experience of those whose lives are shaped by natural disasters.
Trying to describe Shorelines is difficult. It’s hard to recount what happened, step by step. There’s a very particular quality to this work that ensures it remains in my mind as a series of moments that somehow stitch together, but I’m at a loss as to in what order they occurred. Instead, I just remember images, notes, feelings.
Two members of the string quartet, are trying to push towards each other. Each of them is connected by hook belay and another member of the quarter, who are moving in the opposite direction. The image is held, two people caught in a current. Nothing is over-acted, nothing is forced, there is no false strain. We instead are met with a delicate image of people being pulled apart. It’s happening quietly, in the darkness, music swirling between them.
A pram travels across the rear of the stage, pushed by a parent. Pram and parent are separated, and a gap emerges. Parent fades backwards. Pram stays where it is, then drifts into darkness. Furniture is swept away. Light opens out the space. We hear a lone voice.
The work moves slowly, starting with two performers slowly drawing lines that rise up a sheet of acetate, carried via overhead projector onto the back wall. It is deadly silent. The stage is incredibly dark (it is, throughout the work, always quite dark, as if the images are happening somewhere in the back of the mind, somewhere in a memory, somewhere between the events of the North Sea flood and now). We can hear the squeak of the pen. Each line drawn. Deliberate. Slow. The work flooding in. Drip by drip.
Shorelines is an open piece, and that is bound to frustrate some audience members as much as it pleases others. There’s so much room to get lost in it and I, personally, delight in being allowed to drift in and out of attention. It’s warm in Tramway 1 and I come close to falling asleep at one point. I am left to my own devices to imagine, speculate, make sense of what’s happening. I have feelings that are possibly related to the work, possibly related to the event it alludes to, possibly an extension of something else from my day, but what’s most noticeable is that I feel them so strongly. A sadness, loss, heart-break, is felt.
The work closes with the testimony of Peggy Morgan, an Essex-based survivor of the flood who lost first her mother and then husband that night, describing how she let go of their hands as they went underwater. Her words are plainly spoken in short declarative sentences. She held her infant child close to her and was rescued the next day, then taken to hospital. On the day of leaving the hospital she discovered her child had died also, the staff having declined to tell her.
These words are given the appropriate time and space. Nothing else happens and we simply listen to her. To her account, to her experience, to what she lived. The collision of images, fragments and notes that have preceded this moment begin to work themselves into some sort of narrative. I remember what I remember according to her voice, re-making my experience with hers in my mind. I leave the theatre crestfallen, knowing the sound of a grief whose depths I can’t imagine, feeling a history of emotion, knowing something about the North Sea flood of 1953.
Shorelines was at Tramway, Glasgow, until November 2nd. For more details, click here.