Michael Pinchbeck, Nicki Hobday and Ollie Smith are at the beginning. The moment of anticipation, the moment of fear, the moment when – just briefly – anything seems possible. Only their beginning lasts a whole hour, a stretched and suspended moment of playful expectation. In the process, it becomes a meditation not only on the beginning of the theatrical event, but on beginnings of all kinds, in life and in performance.
Pinchbeck’s route in, in the same way as many of us are introduced to theatre, is through Shakespeare. One of his beginnings is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first Shakespeare text that many schoolchildren encounter and the first show that Pinchbeck himself performed in. This is then overlaid with both the affair between Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin that produced the Histoire de Melody Nelson album and with the theatrical beginning that the three performers are engaged in on stage. The layers are never really distinct, blurring and overlapping in a piece that, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, exists somewhere in the space between dreaming and waking.
A unifying theme of these dissolving layers is love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about a series of lovers; the relationship between Gainsbourg and Birkin is one of passionate, headfirst love; Pinchbeck, Hobday and Smith describe what they are creating as a love story with the audience. This manages to both say something intriguing about the relationship with the audience – a relationship this is, hopefully unlike that between lovers, unequal – and about our culture’s borderline obsession with romance. As in this piece, the individual components almost don’t matter. Whether a performer is playing Gainsbourg or Bottom or a version of themselves, or perhaps even a mixture of all three, it’s the love story that counts.
The notion of playing roles also comes under question in a show that is deeply concerned with theatrical conventions. In this confusion of characters, no one is entirely sure who they are playing or who they’re meant to be in love with. Shoes, which are frequently removed and put back on, gain a certain symbolic significance, hinting at the donning and casting off of different roles. The footwear is just one of a series of images and phrases that recur with the unexplained repetition of a dream, weaving a structure that slowly folds in on itself.
Text, meanwhile, occupies a fascinating position at the centre of all of these ideas. Writing, rewriting and the power of the written word in the space of the theatre are flagged up almost immediately, as a good chunk of the piece is communicated through flashcards that pile up under a camera projecting onto a screen behind the performers – again, suggesting the layering of thoughts and impressions. This writing exists in a dynamic relationship with the speech that surrounds it, variously contradicting, controlling and distorting the words that are spoken. At one moment, something must take place because the script dictates it; at another, the prescriptions of the text are pointedly disregarded. Married with the piece’s appropriation of other, existing texts, it intriguingly chips away at the assumed stability and authority of the theatrical text, while never fully displacing it.
As it currently exists, the show is something of a tangle of ideas, a messy knot of fiction, irony, doubt and questioning. But perhaps, in this context, that isn’t such a problem. The beginning is a moment of exploration and experimentation, a moment when things aren’t yet decided, a moment dominated by questions rather than answers. It’s also a moment of hope, which immediately recalls Tim Crouch and a smith’s new show, a piece concerned less with the hope at the start than with what we do with that hope once the performance is over. This question too is implicated here; despite its focus on beginnings, the show cannot permanently put off its own ending and the final, anxious cry of “what next?” The Beginning might be a love letter to theatre, but it’s an uncertain, questioning, problematic one.