Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Delusion, Barbican Centre

Review: Delusion, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 20.04.2010

Laurie Anderson’s stories, rather her poetic ruminations and parables, are born out of alternate states of consciousness. Some are the stuff of dreams; others stem from calm contemplation; some rise from deep within, unlocked by meditation. Even where they are scientific – she talks at one point about Large Hadron Colliders and space-time theory – they have a hazy, wistful quality. They swirl and blur at the edges, melt, warp, smudge and bleed.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Anderson should attempt to alter our state of mind, drawing us out of everyday alertness that we might share her headspace. That she does with dazzling efficiency. All around me, heads slant and bodies slip into slumps, sliding down in their chairs before propping themselves back up to slide once more. Anderson’s voice – a soft American whispered drawl, not dissimilar to Peggy Lee’s in Is That All There Is – is as soothing as Night Nurse. It soaks in the music that whirs on underneath, occasionally submerged by the soft violin and pensive saxophone to reappear moments later. On screens around the stage, hypnotic images turn circles: cameras pan back and forth across deserts, smoke swirls, leaves fall, ripples breathe in and out, forward and reverse.

Accordingly, Delusion is a relaxation chamber. It massages the mind as a muscle that can achieve total relaxation and, once that state is achieved, her words jangle around inside your head. They are graspable only by the subconscious, chiming and resonating, but never slotting into a recognisable pattern or registering their presence.

I cannot fault Anderson’s execution, but I must question the wisdom of her aim. Sometimes massage can contrive to increase tension and Delusion was, for me at least, an experience characterised by increasing frustration. Her words prick the interest. She tells tangential tales of owning the moon, of dying donkeys and small jars of men’s tears. She talks of giving birth to her dog, having surgically inserted it into her womb. All I wanted was to listen, to laugh along, and yet – teeth gritted and nails dug deep into palms – it was all I could do to ward off sleep. Every ounce of my attention became devoted to the attempt to concentrate, leaving nothing for the object of that concentration. Every now and then a phrase punctured through the concerted effort, but looking back at my notes, I cannot place such fragments within the overall. The event disintegrates as it goes along, memories melting as they ought to solidify.

Now, I am reminded of Iris Brunette – Melanie Wilson’s equally deep-cleansing, spa-like experience – which I saw in Edinburgh this summer. The details of Wilson’s sonic steam-room have long since faded underneath the general feeling of calm and yet, I don’t mind so much. By placing us within that atmosphere, Wilson encourages us to feel, where by standing before us, often behind a lectern, Anderson sets up the expectation of delivery. The difference is that Wilson’s words are tools, where Anderson’s are content and that content – odd and indistinct as it may be – serves to disrupt itself.

I should love to tell you more – the function of her two duetting voices, one male, one female; the chalk animations and the traces left behind – but Anderson’s work was too effective for its own good. The rest, as they say, is silence.

Photograph: Rahav Segev

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