Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: EPIC, Soho Theatre

Review: EPIC, Soho Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 02.06.2011

Ostensibly, Lucy Foster and Chloe Déchery’s devised piece concerns the 20th Century. Using video footage of interviews with the performers’ family members, grandparents mostly, they tap into a number of globally significant pivots in time: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Parisian student revolt, the miners’ strikes of Thatcher’s Britain, the fall of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Some of these we might know from school, some from hearsay. Some are completely unfamiliar.

In actual fact, EPIC pretty quickly careers into a wall of its own impossibility. If its starting point is within history, it ends up on the outside, paralyzed and unable, or perhaps unwilling, to connect any two events together, no matter how clear the link. This is the paralysis of postmodernism. Examined this closely, history crumbles. Accepted narratives come to seem fictions spun from unreliable witness statements. Finally, one of the performers, Ed Rapley, the last person to be struck by lightning in the twentieth century (so he tells us), steps forward to announce: “I am not historically significant.”

It’s a brave moment, admirable in following theory through into practice. It’s charged, almost taboo in the way it seems to cut through the base meaning of an individual, through the reason for continuing to exist. And it reverberates around the auditorium. By this point, uncomfortable as it may seem, none of us can say otherwise.

EPIC’s strength is the manner in which it gets to this point. Its central argument is a slow unravelling, like a woolly jumper caught on a nail. From its initial position of well-meaning naivety, EPIC becomes aware of its own contrivance. It suggests the seductiveness of the present manifested in the belief that we are living through special times: the uniqueness of the here and now. It posits history and, with it, current affairs, as mere entertainment, fulfilling a basic human need for narrative. The macro cannot be mined from the micro. History becomes an empty vessel. Or, as Rapley emphatically puts it, “a wrinkled old women dressed as a young seductress wearing too much make up.”

More problematic, however, is the piece’s patchwork quilt style, which displays a lack of a wholly overarching vocabulary and softens the force of the argument. It’s a missed opportunity, as several interrelated vocabularies within are punctured by additional, arbitrarily shaped material. Much of it, for example, is direct address: personal stories about the personal stories of those that appear onscreen. These sit well alongside attempts at objectivity and re-enactment: the po-faced delivery of facts in order. Here, EPIC borrows from (and critiques) Brecht – a recurrent figure, albeit irregularly so – by bleaching history of emotion and personal affinities, stripping it to its skeletal certainties. Neither seems a sufficient tool.

There’s a similar friction between the iconic and the arbitrary. Revolutionary posturing – all clenched fists and distant gazes – rubs up against a physical vocabulary in which a movement is almost surgically attached to a label. Dancer Pedro Inês adopts a series of stances in response to Rapley’s descriptions of action – any other posture would have sufficed – which are then grown into homespun dances and, within the context of the piece, approach an iconography.

It’s indicative of the intelligence behind EPIC, which proves to be that rarest of theatrical works: one that actually fertilizes new thoughts, rather than temporarily bringing old ones to the fore. Though it occasionally slips into easy sentimentality, it is a piquant piece of philosophy that manages to be both rigorous and comforting in its frankness.

Photograph: Manuel Vason

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