Imagine that you are in an audience. Four women sit on four chairs, each placed inside four circles, facing you. Their bodies, their ages and their accents are all different. They open four books and one of the women reads, ‘Let’s talk about speaking first. Let’s talk about who has the privilege of speaking first.’ Somebody else reads it out too. It’s an interesting idea for an opening – but then another performer reads it out, and another, and then they are all saying it, overlapping each other while the words sit on the screen behind them, so that after a while you lose focus on them and on the words and start to wonder how long it can possibly go on for.
That’s how vessel at Battersea Arts Centre begins, but it’s also how watching the show feels.
Over its seventy-minute run-time, this performance piece from Sue MacLaine Company – written and directed by MacLaine herself – departs very little from that format. Four women, four chairs, four scripts. They read, they repeat each other, the words appear behind them. ‘Let’s talk about…’ reads one, and ‘Let’s talk about…’ another. After twenty minutes or so they stand up, and you inhale, waiting for the form to be broken, but then they just swap places and go on as before.
Can a show that’s only seventy minutes long be durational?
The bombardment of phrases and ideas in vessel seems to ask the audience to create the show for ourselves, in our minds – to make our own connections, draw our own conclusions – and while I respect the faith MacLaine and her collaborators clearly have in their audiences, it doesn’t feel like it goes enough of the way to actually unpacking anything.
vessel is a show about language – how it’s not simply a means of communication, but the building blocks that create the world we live in. But that refrain (‘let’s talk about…’, ‘let’s talk about…’) becomes frustrating when you realise they’re not actually going to talk about any of it. Presumably that isn’t the show’s purpose or MacLaine’s intention, but it doesn’t feel like enough, to point at the structures of power that create the world we live in and say: it’s all connected, isn’t it?
Because, yes, it is: the patriarchy relies on racism relies on classism relies on the invisibility of older women relies on not challenging the idea that to make money is inherently good, and on and on. It’s important, it’s true, but it obviously isn’t a new idea – and crucially, vessel doesn’t make it feel new or clarify it or deepen it in any way.
MacLaine is an undeniably intelligent writer, but the sparsity of the staging gives that language so much reverence that after a while you begin to wonder why vessel is actually a play.
‘We are in a relationship now,’ one of the women says. ‘This is not a recreation… We are really here.’
But over her shoulder, you can see the words before she says them, sitting there in a block of text, waiting for her to reach them. There is no illusion of live-ness or of surprise here. The tension between what’s real and what’s being performed on stage is innately interesting, any maybe vessel is trying to call attention to that, but all you feel in the gap between reading those words and hearing them is: no, this isn’t a relationship. You’re just reading to me.
On the bus home from vessel I see a tweet about it. Somebody has quoted a line from the play, the same one I’ve written down: ‘living without limits in a world that is limited’.
The fact that they’ve quoted it makes me think (and I might be wrong) that they found it an aspirational idea: that the world tries to limit us, and we try to live in spite of those limits, in defiance of them. But I took it as a reference to the irresponsibility of late capitalism. That things are finite, and to pretend otherwise is selfish.
The gap between my initial and later experiences of these eight little words reminds me how limited and subjective my experience of the world is, and my experience of any show. But I have to write about vessel anyway.
There are moments of beauty and clarity in this show, but they shift like sand beneath your feet. There are some wonderful phrases, and interesting connections to be made – but there is also a refusal to invite, to enact, to become live, that is impossible to get beyond. The four women with their different bodies and accents and ages move, briefly, at the end of the show; things change, slightly; but it doesn’t feel like enough to work against the rigidity of vessel’s form.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of having the same person write and direct – there’s no collaborative friction between starting idea and end result, between the word and the image. There is only the word, and everything else works to support it.
There are lots of ideas in here – a preface about anchoritism and a repeated section about washing dishes and a long description of rage and some language that feels clever and some that feels lovely – but as a piece of live art, as a piece of theatre, vessel is deeply and profoundly frustrating.
‘We are shouting,’ says a woman in a calm, flat voice, reading from a book, sitting on a chair. She looks out at you with a level expression. ‘We are shouting,’ she says, and you think, No you’re not. But perhaps you should be.
vessel is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 24th November. More info here.