In the most recent edition of her always absorbing newsletter, performance artist Selina Thompson offers this brief meditation on the sinking of the Titanic:
The Titanic feels like a rich way of thinking through ‘the end of the world’. One of the most enduring tales of the Titanic’s demise is that of the string quartet, that continued to play as the Titanic sank. Music, and musicality is something unique to humans. There’s a very specific combination of abilities that enables us to create and experience music as we do, and so far, no other species is known to have all of them. It is not hyperbole to say that music – in so many ways, the purest of creative expression – is a defining human trait. So what does it mean to keep playing music as the Titanic goes down?
That decision. To see death. To accept it. In those dying moments to reiterate once more the best and the most beautiful of what humanity can be: that we can create things – ephemeral and delicate, lasting only as long as it takes for vibrations to move through the air – and to decide to share it, to bring comfort and to inspire. To be completely in the moment.
Charlotte Mooney and Alex Harvey – partners, parents to a four-year-old daughter, co-founders of Ockham’s Razor in 2004 – are suspended in mid-air. Attached to cords either side of his waist, Alex flips Charlotte over his body then out in a circle; Charlotte lays herself against him then slides into free space; her strength meets his strength meets her strength while Marcia Griffiths croons a lover’s rock shuffle of the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down. The words take on a double meaning: keep on loving me, but also keep on holding me, buoying me. Don’t let my feet touch the ground.
I interviewed Charlotte and Alex in 2010, when both were recently turned 30, and Charlotte spoke then about the perceived and practical age limit on aerial work. “Because you’re stretching into the muscles, and it’s quite low-impact, you can keep going for quite a long time – I know some very good aerialists who are in their 40s,” Mooney told me. “But I think my energy might run out before then.”
The future plan, a decade ago, was to shift into directing, with younger artists taking on the performing. Sure enough, there’s a very young artist in This Time: Faith Fahy, barely in her teens. But there’s also a much older artist: Lee Carter, maybe 60 or 61. They make up a neat cross-generational unit: Charlotte and Faith face each other across a glowing portal, Charlotte’s voice narrating a matter-of-fact letter to her younger self; humour melts into something more melancholy when Lee and Charlotte face each other; there is determination and pragmatism when Lee walks through the portal alone.
There is mirroring everywhere: in the shiny back wall; in the movement passages that echo from one pairing to another; but most effectively in another aerial sequence that makes a cat’s cradle of the four bodies, interlocking, leaning in, pulling away. At any moment in this sequence, who is “older”, who is “younger”, who needs most care and protection, and who is best placed to give that? There is support in the movement relationships, but also a cheeky playfulness – Lee and Faith in particular have an excellent line in wriggling away – and at times a shade of annoyance: why won’t you let me go?
Circus is so much a matter of awe-inspiring skill, but is this work “the best and the most beautiful of what humanity can be”? Honestly, no. The friend who came with me was agonisingly bored and afterwards raged that it lacked technical competence. But I don’t think best and most beautiful is what Ockham’s are aiming for: instead the mood is more tempered. Charlotte speaks in the show of how humans, over time, become more emotionally balanced, more conscientious and more agreeable and This Time is all of those things: not just in its movement but in the stories the four performers tell, little glimpses into their lives. Alex of his love of risk and danger as a young child, and of caring for his grandfather; Charlotte of losing her temper with their child, and having to sit herself on the time out chair; Faith of running one morning, alone, exhilarated, but also unmissed; Lee of becoming a mother unexpectedly at the age of 49. The story might be small or it might be huge, but either way it’s held without an excess of emotion, without force. There isn’t a speck of aggression about this show: it’s a thing of modest kindness.
And it’s intergenerational. This matters. It really matters.
At home my husband solves a computer problem that’s been niggling me for weeks in a matter of minutes. You lean on me, I lean on you. Selina sends me a photo of a book she’s just bought by Beth Pickens called Your Art Will Save Your Life. In the excerpt online I find this:
“Anytime you feel overwhelmed by humanity’s impact on people, animals, and the planet, anytime you think you cannot leave the house because the world is too hard, I want you to think about the art, performance, music, books, and films that have made you want to be alive. Think of how those artists, like you, probably felt overwhelmed by their life and times but they made the thing anyway. Your future audiences need your work so you need to make it.”
On the last day of the Christmas holiday I lost my temper with my daughter so badly, her body crumpled like a hurricane-battered tree. I will remember Charlotte talking about her temper for a long time, the same way I still remember her talking in the show Me, Mother, directed by Matilda Leyser and performed at the Roundhouse in 2016, about how hard it was to train as an aerialist: weeks to build up the strength even to grasp the trapeze, let alone swing. Did I need This Time? Probably not. I could have stayed home and watched It Happened One Night with the kids instead, singing along with ‘The Man on the Flying Trapeze’. But every day is a decision to keep playing music as the Titanic goes down. To share that, and try to bring comfort in doing so.
This Time is on at Shoreditch Town Hall till 19th January as part of London International Mime Festival. More info here.