At first it’s like listening to people recounting their dreams. Disjointed images swim through each narrative: one person describes a room full of tubas and people wearing angel’s wings, another a teetering Russian folk dance performed by a woman with no arms. A woman stands crying and abandoned by a river, a man nurtures a dying hummingbird in the street. It’s as though each storyteller had been transported from the real world to the realms of the surreal, the deepest recesses of the subconscious. These aren’t dreams, however, but memories of real events: unusual encounters, many of them with a piece of theatre or performance art, and some with life itself.
Patiently gathered over the course of several months by Helen Cole, the stories told in We See Fireworks say much about our relationship with art, the proximity it creates with extremities of experience, and its ability to reverberate in our minds long after the event itself has passed. Cole presents them simply: her venue is cavernous but she has created a small dark space within it, lit by a galaxy of old-fashioned filament bulbs, which illuminate in subtly choreographed relationship with each narrative. Within this black box – a loaded term in theatre, implying cramped ambition, a lack of scope – Cole takes us across the world: we hear accents from England and Scotland, America and Australia. There is a quiet manifesto embedded here: it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, live performance can affect you.
It’s so dark that other figures in the room seem as ghostly as the disembodied voices floating through the air. What arises is a curious feeling of collective solitude, which emerges as a unifying theme of the narratives, too. One woman describes the thrilling awareness that someone she loved sitting a few rows behind her in an auditorium was feeling as she did, sharing her thoughts; as she talks, one light-bulb glows, and then two. When experiences related correspond to a moment from your own life, the jolt of unexpected connection is electrifying: the young woman who describes looking out over a row of gardens on New Year’s Eve, watching people create their own ad-hoc fireworks display, could be me the night 2012 became 2013; later, someone talks about how moved she was by a performance in which soldiers received letters from home and I realise with a shiver that she is reliving my favourite scene from the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.
This is what makes We See Fireworks so magical: the memories are individual, but the feelings universal. Love, loneliness, nostalgia, joy, pain, fear, death: one by one, the storytellers are given greater understanding of these fundamentals. Mostly that’s through art or theatre or performance, but sometimes it’s thanks to an accident in daily life: incidents stumbled upon, beauty caught by chance. One of these stories exemplifies the transformation of attitudes that art makes possible: a woman walking through a foreign city takes a wrong turn and finds herself face-to-face with a gang of youths. She feels vulnerable and afraid. But what happens next astonishes her. They apparently break into a car – but when they do, it’s to play Michael Jackson’s Beat It on the car stereo. And then they begin to dance. A huge, choreographed routine, that makes her feel lucky to be alive in the best possible way. “It was like a sort of dream sequence or something,” she says, her voice ringing with wonder.
It’s said that nothing is more boring than listening to people describing their dreams. The same might be said of listening to people describe at length a performance you yourself haven’t seen and never will. We See Fireworks refutes this, in the process rejecting the impatience behind such an attitude, the impatience driving the modern world in which art is seen as a luxury for the elite and not an essential to human understanding of our complicated existence. Cole invites us into other people’s minds – and in doing so switches on new lights within our own.
Read more reviews from IBT13 in our Performance section.