Review: The Catastrophe Trilogy, Barbican Theatre
Published on Culture Wars, 12.03.2010
Lone Twin’s is a trilogy marked by anomalies. While threads can be drawn between two of the pieces, one always juts out. Try to link them thematically and you’ll come a cropper on The Festival. Try to do so stylistically and Daniel Hit By a Train jars. Its square pegs and round holes; Its squeezing one object too many into a container, such that, each time, another pops out the other side. Funnily enough, I rather like the lack of neatness. It forces you to seek answers that may or may not exist. It makes you work to reconcile.
In fact, the strongest constant is the space itself. Each time, we find ourselves sat opposite another bank of bodies, separated by a strip of coloured stage. Alice Bell’s is a bright green: the sort that children colour grass when still under the influence of cartoons. Daniel Hit By a Train’s is a moody, Rothko red. When accompanied by the yellowish light, which bounces off the floor and picks up it colour, the effect is like the glow of a furnace. By the time you enter for The Festival, attempting to anticipate the new colour, you never consider white. Its freshness takes you by surprise; the speckled array of accompanying colours, dotted here and there, stand bright, crisp and cheery against it. From the floor alone, ideas spring to mind: not the concrete, clearly-defined sort; but hazier, not-quite-pinnable recollections. It’s as if Lone Twin make synesthetes of us all.
Alice Bell shows a city at war with itself, in which a young girl – twinkling with hope – crosses sides out of love, only to return out of force, carrying explosives back towards her family and friends. “I believe,” she chants, “you can change your heart.” The most in-depth and intelligent of the three, Alice Bell partners gloomy content with the strum of ukeles and loopy, cartoonish characters. The enemy here, a faceless man in a wrestling mask, is a caricature of hatred. Over-embellished vitriol spills from his mouth: “Anne fucking Frank in your fucking cupboard, I will harm you…Captain fucking Kirk in your fucking space rocket, I will harm you…children who call your parents by their first names, I will fucking harm you.” Alice’s best friend is equally and oppositely zany, buzzing around the stage, arms flapping and hands fizzing. And yet, there is a quiet, unshowy desolation beneath the cheeriness. It never sets out to make throats lumpen and chins quiver, but just to assert its presence without fuss.
In Daniel Hit by a Train, the same ensemble turn their hand to bitesize narratives. It is a roll-call of self-sacrifice, its lead taken from the memorial in the nearby Postman’s Park. With the same micro-structure repeated – a cry (“Who saw the train? Who here. Saw the train?”), a response (“I did. I saw the train”), a stylised enactment, end scene – the piece becomes a game of charades. It sorely lacks the non-literalism of movement encapsulating action of Alice Bell; to many answers are provided. However, Daniel Hit by a Train is not itself a eulogy. It is about eulogies. It looks at categorisation, our need to lump together, to commemorate these actions in order to inspire others to similar self-sacrifice. The focus is not on the catastrophes (re)presented, but on our behaviour in the wake of catastrophe and in the face of constant (potential) catastrophe. “Regard the train,” the announcer demands: Re-guard the train.
If catastrophe makes its presence felt (and possibly over-felt) in these first two, it is almost a struggle to spot it in The Festival. A spirited story of a life more everyday, it tells of a whale-watching festival and a meeting in its midst. Perhaps love is the catastrophe, forever altering the landscape of a life; perhaps it is the breakdown of the love story we begin to anticipate; perhaps it is the flat ordinariness of everyday life that can never match such moments of heightened emotion. The tone is jovial, far more so than before, almost self-aware and mocking, but the comic return is strong. We get perky renditions, half-embodied impersonations, of U2, Bruce Springsteen and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. We get a mother, hopping bonkers, smoking in disguise. We get a real sense of a relaxing elsewhere, of time away, of rejuvenation and of fresh, coastal air. We get a theatre company savouring every individual flavour they use; really feeling movements, tasting words (van-der-graff-gen-er-a-tor) and registering the reverberations of a song sung. The result is a joyous end to the cycle.
Most worthy of note here is Lone Twin’s groundbreaking storytelling, more fully embodied by Alice Bell and The Festival than the shards of Daniel Hit by a Train. Though they remain resolutely post-dramatic, these two pieces manage to work through a full-blown narrative, carefully balancing singularity and multiplicity. The fiction itself is never embodied: performers don’t act, actions seen are dislocated from actions represented. And yet, the fiction is utterly present, hovering somewhere above the stage, vivid in the mind’s eye. Unlike a lot of post-dramatic theatre, which uses to irony as defence mechanism against narrative, there is no disdain for story-telling, no smack of superiority. Instead of half-hearted reconstruction (a la Forced Entz/Crimewatch), the effect is like a police storyboard: the overall emerges from the accumulation of evidence with the linkage left to us.
The mode is rigorously spare and yet never sparse. Each piece has a huge depth of tone, thanks to precise attention to atmosphere and, most importantly, rhythm. Lone Twin pitch their pacing deliberately out of sync with the world and, through repetition, force us to abandon everyday timeframes. They draw out sonic textures from movement – footfalls and breath, claps and clicks – and stretch them until you snuggle in and your blood pumps in time. The result is to entice you unwittingly, almost sub-consciously, such that to fight against it is impossible. It’s as if Lone Twin hold you underwater until you evolve gills and fins.
As so often at the Barbican, I world I re-entered afterwards was not the same one that I had left behind. Is there a better journey home than these post-Bite nights? I know of no other venue that alters one’s perception with such regularity. With ears attuned to the clatter of the tube and the rising, falling hum of passing cars, the double click of footsteps and the whoosh of smokers’ exhalations, London seemed a beat-poem carefully composed, teeming with unseen, unfolding narratives. And I was humming all the way home thanks to this infectious, breezy trilogy.
Photograph: Francis Loney