Surely these pieces have nothing in common?
Tania El Khour’s Gardens Speak is an interactive 30-minute sound installation which tells the oral histories of 10 Syrians who have been buried in their gardens. Jo Clifford’s Every One, directed by Chris Goode is a updated take on the medieval Everyman story of redemptive Christianity. So far, so completely different.
In a small room in Battersea Arts Centre we’re given a clinical-looking plastic coat and card with a name on, and ushered into another dark room where 10 gravestones stand in some dirt. Across Syria, many gardens conceal the bodies of activists who died between 2008 and 2011 uprising against Assad’s regime.
By torchlight, we dig at a grave with our hands as each activist whispers his story from below the earth. We move earth aside to hear more clearly; place our ears awkwardly to the ground, arses in the air.
Each narrative has been constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased. From the earth, Jalal tells me he feels like his death served no purpose. His sacrifice failed to save more people from the same fate – he lists the family members who die after him. A quiet voice at the back if my brain agrees with him.
I also feel kind of silly. In part because I’m lying on dirt in a dark room full of strangers with my head shoved against a stylised grave, but mainly because it feels like a futile way to try to understand the lives of those whose existence is so very different to mine. My world will never be like Jalal’s. He keeps whispering his story in my ear while in the background the other nine murmured stories seem to multiply….
What purpose does this serve? Jalal is dead. Assad is still Assad. By the time his tale is told, my hands are dirty.. I leave in search of my warm glass of cheap wine.
Things look less demanding with Every One.
Our Every One is Mary (Angela Clerkin), a middle-aged, middle-class, happy, part-time tax inspector. It feels almost soapy as the characters smash the fourth wall and chat directly to the audience about the mundane, vacuous details of their lives. Maybe because there’s something hyper-ordinary about Mary’s family: her gaga mother in an uncaring care home, her fashion and video game obsessed teen offspring, her right-on teacher husband.
At one point, she explains she’s a tax inspector but doesn’t like to work full-time, because work is both fulfilling and futile. She’s got better things to do, but we never find out what these things are.Other than the ironing, she doesn’t really seem to do much. She smiles constantly, almost simperingly, like she’s permanently impressed with her own happiness and cosy existence. I momentarily despise her and, with my dirty hands and warm wine, I can’t help thinking about Jalal in his grave.
Mary’s husband Joe (Michael Fenton Stevens) is a former Latin master who rails against the modern world, angry at the stories of injustice in the newspaper and decries supermarket 2 for 1 offers before packing them in the boot and heading home. Like me, with my dirty hands and and warm wine, his thoughts change nothing.
Things get a little bonkers when the delightfully amoral death arrives in the guise of Nigel Barrett – a kind of jovial if disconnected game show host – to take Mary while she’s doing the ironing.
We feel her family’s grief. It’s real. These aren’t bad people. Can we criticise them for avoiding the chaos and fear that fills the world news section of the paper? Not really. Can we blame each of them as the wrap themselves in their own little preoccupations – Latin grammar, videogames, fashion – to insulate themselves from and give meaning to an otherwise futile existence. Of course, not. We all do.
But is that good enough? Somehow the Holocaust enters proceedings – a stark reminder about what happens when people en masse look only to themselves and away from others.
What’s changed by Mary’s death? For her family, everything. For the world, nothing. Well, not quite. Daughter Maz is driven to design a hospital robe that gives patients a little more dignity, while her son dreams of designing a videogame to help understand strokes. It’s something. Like me taking the time to listen to Jalal, it’s not nothing.
Every One is a big rollercoaster ride through the responsibilities we have to ourselves, our family, and the wider world, which raises multiple answers and offers no solutions. And that’s just fine with me because reducing people’s lives to theory is silly and, yes, futile.It feels like all we can do is bear witness to each other’s existence no matter how purposeless our lives and deaths. Maybe the act of bearing witness is how we make life meaningful? And maybe that’s going to have to be enough.
Gardens Speak and Every One is on until 19th March 2016. Click here for tickets.