Thursday 29 July 2010


A highly subjective account of a site-responsive promenade performance by DreamThinkSpeak in the old Co-op Building, Brighton

“We struggle to change life so that those who come after us might be happy, but those who come after us will say as usual it was better before, life now is worse than it used to be.” 
- Chekhov
“The question is whether in creating new things that we want, we also destroy things that we need.” 
- Performance programme

A first has occurred. This is the first time Lucid Frenzy has reported on something late deliberately. When the performance company DreamThinkSpeak took over the empty old Co-op building on Brighton’s London road for a “site-responsive promenade performance”, it was initially for the Brighton Festival in May. But popular demand extended this not once but twice, and it finally finished on July 4th. Moreover, as you emerge from the events a notice requests you not to spill the “secrets” of what you’ve seen. (In fact even the programme contains no images from the performance itself.) So this piece couldn’t have been written until after the much-delayed final night! (If anyone points out this means it could have been posted any time from July 5th I will become all tetchy...)

You may be wondering what a “site-responsive promenade performance” is all about, or guessing that it’s probably a way of saying “high-concept but vacuous piece of arty crap.” Normally I would share such healthy cynicism. Yet trust me, for once it is misplaced...

The old Co-op was transformed and mutated into a fresh environment, in a hybrid of performance and installation piece. Rather than take your seats and watch a set sequence of events get underway, you were admitted in small groups at staggered intervals. At points you would obligingly follow set paths, at others find your own route. There’d be times when you’d interact with proceedings you encountered, and others where you’d merely observe them.

The piece’s twin bases were in Chekhov’s ’Cherry Orchard’ and the Co-op building itself. But you didn’t really need much foreknowledge of either. As Dominic Maxwell wrote in 'The Times', it “honours Chekhov, builds on Chekhov, but needs no knowledge of Chekhov.”

Analogy corner: It was like a remix of Chekhov’s play, the way linear pop songs get spliced and rearranged, little phrases magnified by recurrance until they start to take on a whole new meaning. Alternately, it was like one of Dali’s works where he’d reprise and mutate myths from more classical paintings. Figures, scenes and images would constantly recur in new forms and arrangements; sometimes life-size, sometimes as models or rooms in dolls’ houses, sometimes video projections. Most recurrent, apart from the titular orchard, were the aristocratic couple awaiting service at their table and the elderly servant bringing a tray to them - a simple image of the ordered old world unaware of what was in store for it.

Plays commonly have a three-act structure; the performance countered with a three-floor structure.  (‘The Cherry Orchard’ actually has four acts, but let’s not allow that to spoil a good analogy!) You first enter through the basement, a subterranean realm which represents our past and the character’s present. They often stop at our approach, gazing in surprise and irritation at our ill-mannered intrusion. They reply indignantly in (presumably) Russian, making communication impossible. We see them only through patinas; behind sheets of semi-frosted glass, by looking down at models or peering through slots, or through water-lines. (The recurring motif of the diving costume comes in here, suggesting the past is another world to ours just as the underwater environment is.)

But when we enter the ground floor we burst into a brightly lit department store, where an array of salespeople appear to greet us. The juxtaposition is like crossing a dimension, with the new dimension of course the present. While the past had spoken a foreign language each of the salespeople patters in a different language. (Even though you are aware they are acting, you feel the familiar awkwardness of being abroad and trapped within your own tongue.) Of course the babble of languages represents globalisation. (Some pedants might object that, far from multiplying languages, globalisation is reducing them to a Newspeak of a debased American English. But are we that kind of men?)

The past was progressed through by a linear path, lit by oil-lamps or candles. But in the present a shadowy maze of corridors break off from a bright central room, many of them merely leading back to the same room. You become almost apprehensive, trying to find your way away from the sales floor but forever being returned to it. Rather than escape routes, these sub-rooms and corridors feel something like the Freudian id, mere repressed reflections of the main arena. One darkened room was full of massed mannequins, another dead orchard.

As fresh parties of punters arrive on the sales floor behind us, and the sales staff recite the same babble-greetings, we become aware the actors are doing the same thing over and over. Theoretically we know this to be true of every theatre performance. We even talk to friends who saw the same show on different nights, expecting their experience to be identical.  But during the show we switch the information off to enjoy the moment. Here that awareness is an essential part of the piece. The effect is quite purgatorial, as if there’s no escape or release.

Now the past is over, experience no longer occurs in groups. As soon as we entered the sales floor, with it’s maze of offshoots, I immediately lost the people I had been admitted with. The general audience now becomes visible, milling around. But this very addition reduces you to an individual within a crowd, just as you are when out shopping.

When finally reached, the final, upper floor must almost by definition be the future. It would be almost glib to call it post-modern, it feels almost post-apocalyptic. For the first time there are no human actors, just an array of video screens in empty rooms. There’s no longer language barriers because there’s no longer language. Some attendees complained of the comparative emptiness of the top floor, yet this barren-ness hits as hard as the babbling busyness before, and has its own meaning. One vast room is filled with Max Richter’s mournful score (riffing of Berber’s ’Adagio For Strings)’, while you focus on what’s not there - a life-size but cut-down cherry orchard filling a room. As the programme notes, “the overriding sense is that we are witnessing a world in collapse rather than renewal.” Even when you run into other punters it doesn’t seem to matter much, it feels just as deserted. Earlier we ran into ghosts of the past. Now it’s as if we’ve become them.

The videos at first look cyclic, but aren’t. In one the servant wanders a forest, proffering a cup and saucer with no-one to take it from him, a function now nothing but an empty gesture. The camera pulls back from this tangled forest to reveal he’s alone on an island. This moment seemed to sum up the whole environment, in both theme and tone. The servant is the most-seen figure, a man marooned by time, adhering to old ways where all that is left is absence. The image is humorous but (particularly given the cumulative effect) strangely moving.

Yet the performance actually ends with an unexpected image - a cherry tree back in bloom, an arresting sight in the middle of an apparently derelict urban building. It’s types of time which have been vying all along. The old, cyclic time of the cherry orchard is replaced first by the linear time of the industrial world, then the multi-tasking tangled time of modernity (characterised by the overlapping sales soundbites), then the seeming death of time (the mournful musical refrain looping almost in parody of cyclic time).

In analysing something, you inadvertently break it into its component parts. Yet it’s often only when those parts are put together that its purpose becomes discernable. Here, alas, we have talked of the “promenade performance” before moving onto the “site-responsive”. But it’s crucial to the piece that the building was not some architectural canvas, on which to hang their works. To quote again from the programme, “we strive to design scenes that respond to and sit within the host site, as if they have always belonged there.”  While wandering, the quicker you stop trying to figure what’s a prop and what’s an actual part of the environment, the more the two blend into one and the faster you feel like you’re getting it.

This site-responsive effect was enhanced for me by two factors. First, if somewhat prosaic-sounding, I used to shop in the Co-op! (While the director mentions buying his fridge there, I picked up some saucepans. But now they handle’s broken on one and I can’t take it back.) After I’d seen the show I’d sometimes pass by on London Road, and see it’s activity through the windows. Transforming such an everyday space into something so numinous is part of the magical effect.

But its also a reminder that the closure of the Co-op, most likely to be replaced by an arcade of branded stores topped by yuppie ‘apartments’, is itself a chopping-down of a world just as the cherry orchard was. Yuppification is a huge problem in Brighton, as career-chasers elect to move to somewhere ‘artistic’ and price all the artists out. Perhaps the way the performance extended through word-of-mouth (and certainly many people were talking about it), suggests it did trigger some local sense that the Co-op should have a wake.

Yet for me such department stores always had something numinous about them. Back in my Seventies youth they were still common, and Saturdays would see my family shop in them. The performance brought back how monumental they seemed to my child mind, how I’d sneak away to explore them alone, vast arenas full of sofas, cathedrals to beds, a gargantuan contrast to the small bungalow we called home.

It could be argued that the sheer scale and ambition of the piece set itself a bar which was then hard to reach. And it’s true some parts were more memorable, and more pertinent to the overall themes, than were others. Yet this scale was important in its own right, in immersing you in its atmosphere. Cinema-goers sometimes comment that they “felt inside” a particularly involving film. Yet with this piece you were inside it, rather than merely looking in. You were completely immersed in another world for a good couple of hours. And, while different film viewers might notice or respond to different elements in their own ways, here audience members could at times quite literally go different ways. When you walked out afterwards it took time to readjust.

Given its site-specific nature, it seems unlikely this piece will ever be repeated. However the company will hopefully be up to bold new explorations. If their future adventures can equal this, they will certainly be worth seeing. Coming to a disused shopping centre near you..?

The shop window photos are mine. The reflections symbolise the performance’s interaction with its environment, and are nothing to do with my witless inability to take the shots without them. More here.

Coming Soon! Stuff that’s still more hopelessly late...

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