Limited Editions is a series of very short runs by visiting companies at the NT Shed. It’s perhaps says something about the current sources of creative energy in the British theatre scene that, of the companies taking part, all except Little Bulb are Bristol-based. Not that the South West needs the validation of grand South Bank institutions though. Companies like the excellent Sleepdogs have been experimenting across forms for over ten years.
The Bullet and the Bass Trombone has been released as an album and remixed as part of the Bristol Proms to make The Bullet and the Damage Done. I see the original version of the piece, which is a hybrid play/concert. A keyboard and sound-desk is placed in centre-stage with music stands surrounding it, unlit absences. Writer and performer Timothy X Atack, plays an unnamed composer who is trying to piece together the events of a coup in a far away post-colonial, Portuguese-speaking country. Understandably, for a composer, he is trying to piece the narrative together through sound and acts as our guide through what he has discovered.
He begins with the sound of a bird native to that part of the world. Its song sounds like a human being whistling. To me it actually sounded like the first few notes of An American in Paris. Atack’s character explains that its range is familiar because it’s human, more specifically western. He was inspired by that bird’s song to create a piece of music, which the President of that post-colonial Portuguese-speaking country found out about and invited a British orchestra to come and play.
The text doesn’t dwell on the political motivations behind cultural diplomacy of this kind or its ability to legitimise oppressive regimes in the eyes of the international community. Instead it treats its audience as collaborators themselves, leaves space for them to explore the piece’s meaning. The birdsong draws the composer to write the piece of music. Without it, that orchestra wouldn’t have ended up in that country at the time of a military coup and nobody would have died.
You follow the journeys of various members of the orchestra as the composer describes them and sometimes through their own accounts. In some cases, we know that the person speaking must have survived but in others, there is a greater sense of ambiguity. He is either reading their accounts or seems to have hired an actor to do so on a recording. The result of this is that you experience their journey from one moment to the next as they would have done: knowing that they could die at any minute and that, in the scheme of things, in the place and time they are in, their death would have little consequence.
The text vividly and chillingly describes a poor nation in a state of flux and the extremities of behaviour this can lead to. Seeing that fictional (but recognisable) country through the eyes of a group of outsiders acts as a kind of blinker that intensifies the experience. We try to piece things together, just as our narrator has tried to do but the information we receive is fragmentary, confused, sometimes apparently contradictory or at least counter-intuitive.
Thematically I found it harder to understand what the significance of the characters being musicians might have been. It leads to some powerful moments, of course, where they play Mahler and Brahms as a revolution takes place around them and they look death in the eye.
There’s an inevitability about this but it also functions as a grand romantic gesture on, one that is used on more than one occasion but revisited and re-contextualised, rather like a musical motif. In some senses, the group of foreigners could have been any collection of artists but the content of the piece has been a little contrived to fit the form though. I was happy to go along with this though because the hybrid nature of the piece was pulled off with such precision and style. The music became an integral part of the storytelling and the story made it matter to us because it mattered to the characters so much.