Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Land Without Words, Just the Tonic @ The Caves

Review: Land Without Words, Just the Tonic @ The Caves

Published on Culture Wars, 18.08.2009

“The pain has got to be there; I’m not interested in provocation.” Well, that pain certainly makes its presence known in Dea Loher’s tortured meditation on aesthetics delivered here with extraordinary force of feeling by Lucy Ellinson.

An unnamed artist alone in her studio questions the purpose and possibility of art. In the wake of a recent visit to K, a far off war-torn city, her practice has suffered paralysis. She knows that art has a place in a world of such possible devastations, but only insofar as it can truly pertain to them. Not beauty for beauty’s sake, then, but revelation, rumination and reality; not Georgia O’Keefe’s Petunia (“a supermodel image of life”), but her Ram’s Skull.

Attempting to paint her experiences, the artist is confronted by the ineffability of the horrors she has witnessed. Sure, she can capture the image of K, but how can she make manifest its essence? “Fear is white,” she blasts, “I can’t find the white.”

Lucy Ellinson is a phenomenon. She tears the text open as if ripping off a scab to re-expose a wound. Words clacker from her mouth with the rhythm of a typewriter, then stop; suspended mid-epiphany. Every choice she makes is elevated with detail and curiosity. When she takes off her top, for example, she doesn’t simply remove it, but trails it slowly over her face to catch its contours. Momentarily, its stretched hollows form the agonized skull of The Scream by Edward Munch.

In fact, Munch’s icon recurs throughout: first as her clenched claws prize open her face, then in the clay mask moulded over her features, pierced by her tongue. Is it a silent scream of horrors witnessed or of frustrations felt? Such details are testimony to the density of Lydia Ziemke’s direction, which must also take credit for the various masks that materialize on Ellinson’s face. As the clay dries, there appears a layer of ash and, later still, the pure white of Pierrot make-up, gradually cracking. When she eventually washes the dirt away, the clay seems to become mascara streaking down her cheeks.

Lest all this sound biased towards the cerebral, the combination of Loher’s (slightly over-wrung) text and Ellinson’s total embodiment packs an emotional punch. The artist’s pain translates into a heavy-hanging pathos and there is a humour peppered throughout, albeit so born of distress that laughter seems unthinkable.

As a whole, Land Without Words is perfectly knitted together, permanently and wholeheartedly in tune with the aesthetic principles extolled by its protagonist: bodily over beauty. The result is a gripping piece of performance that leaves behind thumping and insoluble conundrums, both ethical and aesthetical.

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