It may be some desensitisation to the weird, but I feel The Kids Are Alright is perfectly natural. Encounter’s show was intended to be performed live on a range of council estates, but ended up being filmed in one take on the Evelyn Estate in Deptford, right before lockdown 2 at the beginning of November. As the film opens, Carl Harrison’s Karen jitters and crumples like she’s being pecked at by spirits, the sound of her distress set close to your eardrums (if you’re watching with headphones on, which I recommend). Janet Etuk as Keith stoops around corners like the weight on his back is an extension of his body. A Ionesco-esque couple after the death of their young daughter. Keith wants to plant a dogwood in her memory. Karen considers moving to Texas. All matter of fact, the grief is beautifully jarring, and painfully real.
From then on it moves in meanders and maybes. Bold and surprising imagery – at times violent and ugly – that’s compelling to discover, and may or may not speak to events that were actualised in this couple’s lives. It’s an exaggerated, absurdist space of juxtaposition and dream logic – funny and sad. A cruise to Santorini. A trip to the Algarve. A six figure deal for a book about their dead daughter. They test the waters of these spaces, treading them seemingly in search of something that they never name but are desperate to feel. Hypothesising. What should they do. What will they do. What have they done. The mind map of potential realities sprawls like mycelium under the soil of their suffering as they try to learn how to feel while avoiding showing their / they’re feeling.
How they feel is a question for their bodies, as well as for their words. At times the engrossing movements take precedence as the true language of feeling. Karen seems to be in a communion with the ground. Scrape and roll and fall. Distress and resilience. She often returns to the earth. Keith is more sturdy, stoic. Doddering forwards sometimes after Karen, sometimes away from her. Focused on distance between them, more so than on Karen herself. Despite it being Covid rules, the lack of touch doesn’t feel like an absence. Their intimacy comes from synchronicity, the shared rhythms of their words and the way they sponge up each other’s consequences as if ring-fencing the trauma to minimise the potential for their lives to fall apart. As long as their bubble doesn’t break, they can keep each other safe.
Sometimes language emerges as the language of their feeling. In bursts of clarity in a consistently provoking text: “If I could scrape you out of my heart I would.” “Tell me this is temporary.” On a stage I might watch for a reaction from the other actor, so it’s interesting that many of Karen’s words early on are addressed without Keith in sight. Out of frame. We might hear his voice appear. It feels a bit like a disembodied voice-over, since the actor’s mics maintain the same volume however close or far they are in frame. But once adjusted to the rules of physics being different in this space, the constantly present voices, arguing without anger, reconciling without memory, hoping without trepidation, feels like a poignant extension. They are always present for each other at the same volume, however much they try to move away.
When the language of movement and the language of language move on different currents, there’s a certain magic. That full of friction juxtaposition that’s a joy to experience for its strangeness and its realness. The pretence of keeping on while under the surface riptides and eddies threaten as much as ever. But here the boundary between over and under the surface is erased, the undercurrents erupt as movement, almost on automatic while their mouths continue to shape sound. You might imagine this going on forever as the lives of others continue to edge around their periphery.
The outdoor nature-concrete setting undeniably provides a sense of journey that a theatre space couldn’t. As the end of the day cocoons around Karen and Keith, people walk home, avoiding the invisible boundaries of grass and pavement under a darkening purple sky. Front doors open and close. The cameras keep the space open and our relationship with the couple ever evolving, even though by the end we know nothing much about them except the aching hole they share. Replaying the experience in my mind the space is imbued with meaning. Next to the tree. In the bush. In between the flats on the paving stones where they dance and talk about prawns and Asda. Place is a poignant trigger for memory. Their escape on a cruise was supposed to help them heal, but they return to a place amplified with meaning that’s as close to breaking point as they get. But then again, they always seem on the edge of rupture, in perpetual motion around the edge of a volcano.
It all does sound odd when it’s picked apart. But it’s remarkable how the experience flowed seamlessly and inexorably together, elegant within its own odd universe. Not even strange so much as inevitable.
I wrote something down just before the play started. Sitting in my seat (my bed), waiting for the lights to dim (the youtube live countdown clock to finish).
“I’ve been trying to make sense of things lately
I can’t process as clearly as before
I think I’m tired
But this isn’t about me
Or is it?”
The Kids Are Alright is available to stream until 2nd December. More info here.