I live nearby to Bristol’s Catholic Cathedral, a building notable for its architectural similarity to Darth Vader. Aside from on Sundays when they really get going with the dings and dongs, the weeks are sporadically punctuated by mysterious ringings of the bells. To my non-Catholic mind there is no pattern to this, although sometimes when it sounds I’ll try Googling to see if it’s the Feast of St. Agnes or some other holy so-and-so. I’ll try to crack the code. Occasionally it will also peal out a message in the early evening, which I presume is for Vespers in the same way that Bristol Cathedral lets rip with a whole symphony of artful clangings in time for Evensong. The yearly and daily rhythms of the church remain for me, and many others, as mysterious and unknowable as transubstantiation.
Stacy Makishi’s Vesper Time reclaims this evening ritual of prayer, contemplation and thanks. The piece does so in a manner that makes the viewer want to let rip with psalms of superlatives that in another context would sound helplessly trite. But as the show itself preaches: don’t go small, go big. So in that vein, Vesper Time is a gorgeous hymn to using the brevity of life as motivation for fearlessness, truth and love. In addition to that, it is staged by a performer whose generosity in seeking to make the audience feel uplifted and empowered to be and do good induces strange feelings of unworthiness, in the way that being on the receiving end of unmitigated kindness can. I wonder what I did to deserve walking into a room and have someone be just so fucking nice. Aside from the script, the biggest advertisement for the message of Vesper Time is Makishi herself as she radiates the non-judgemental compassion so frequently missing from actual church services. If Makishi lived next door to me and rang a bell each evening, I would happily come a-running.
The thing that stops all this Carpe Dieming from becoming another cheesy quote printed against an image of a sunset, is that it’s funny (a fact no doubt helped by Makishi’s other work as a stand-up comedian). Mixed in amongst the crackling one-liners and audience interaction are moments of insight and sadness, like the absence of an actual father figure leading to the attraction of Our Father who art in Heaven. Like Sylvia Plath and her “man in black with a Meinkampf look”, Makishi also has a story punctuated by leaden, blue-tinted moments. Whilst we’re all chortling away thinking about Demi Moore and silver platform shoes, she throws into the mix a reference to her ‘Great Depression’ with such casualness that several people laugh, probably because it sounds like another punch line and the actual meaning takes a while to sink in. Taking advice on feeling good from someone who has never had moments of severe gloom can sometimes feel like taking advice on sex from a celibate nun. That’s not to entirely dismiss a different viewpoint, but a message delivered as a conclusion to living through multifarious experiences feels easier to take. If she bounded on to the stage declaring that the sun had shone for her from age 3, the temptation to grimace would be much higher.
In essence Makishi’s ideas are nothing new. Love thy neighbour; forgive those who trespass against us. They’re just the same ones we constantly need reminding to live and believe in. And so the only problem with the show is the same problem that exists in the wider world: how exactly do we do that? Like after attending a church service, I left Vesper Time feeling recharged and on the right path. Then in the 48 hours following it, the doubts started to multiply. I disappeared down wormholes of thoughts about the human kind of forgiveness versus a bigger sense of forgiveness; the forgiveness that is closer to acceptance. The forgiveness of the universe for allowing 19 year olds to die, not the forgiveness of a father for how he acted in the past. How being unable to do the latter still allows room for trying to do the former. Makishi’s show doesn’t answer these questions or many others. But it does provide a sense of companionship in the lonely task of trying to do so.
Vesper Time was on at the Arnolfini as part of IBT17. Click here for more details.