Theatre Critic and Journalist

Thoughts on In Eldersfield Chapter 1: Elegy for Paul Dirac, SPILL FESTIVAL

Thoughts on In Eldersfield Chapter 1: Elegy for Paul Dirac, SPILL FESTIVAL

“In Eldersfield is a decade-long, ten chapter cycle of works all for the twentieth century – to which we are no longer beholden, but to which we may always belong.”

Eldersfield. It certainly sounds English. Rural. It’s probably somewhere between village and town; definitely bigger than a hamlet. Bathed in that golden Hovis advert glow. Surrounded by green hills and green trees. Little clouds of white smoke probably rise from chimneys. Buildings are made with local stone. There may even be a fully functioning parish noticeboard. From the sound of the word, you just know it’s idyllic.

As used by Kings of England, a tenderly amorphous collection of multi-disciplinary artists under the influence of Simon Bowes, it is almost more than that. Not just idyll, but somehow ideal, it has about it a note of Elysium.

Often we see the twentieth century in very different terms. We look back on its escalating horrors and its advancing impersonality. We chart the rise of the baby boomers and the manipulation of political and social structures to suit a aggressively capitalist agenda. We see in it the seeds of the post-9/11, web 2.0 world. In Eldersfield displays a hope to move away from that image, harvesting the previous century for instances, moments, people, ideas that might be celebrated. It is as much reclamation of the twentieth century as blueprint for the one just beginning. Bowes and Co. are constructing a manifesto of values – moral, aesthetic, idealistic – that might better serve us in the twenty-first.

*****

Its first is in Paul Dirac, a theoretical physicist born and bred in Bristol. This, Bowes tells us, is an invocation of Dirac. John Pinder, who shares a number of physical attributes with Bowes’s description of Dirac, stands centre stage. (Disclaimer: I used to work alongside John, and Alex Eisenberg, who is also in the cast, in Present Attempt. He has a remarkable otherwordliness and is perfectly cast as Dirac. He has puppet-like physicality, as if his joints are not connected but delicately strung together. His head, in particular, seems to balance on a single pivot point. He seems a human Jenga tower. As Dirac, he reminds me of something I once heard about Wayne Rooney; that he sees the world differently, slower, making his reactions faster than those around him.)

Around him the cast trot through a mildly deferential sequence of movement, cocking knees and bowing heads in ceremonial supplication. The poses are greetings, deferential and welcoming, open and vulnerable. It’s not far from worship or a slow dance of courtship. It serves to transform Pinder into Pinder/Dirac. He represents Dirac not in the sense of ‘playing’ him, but by standing in for him: a substitute effigy in the midst of a gentle séance. (To represent the other scientists at the 1927 Solvay Conference, other cast members, including a number of schoolchildren, wear blackboards with ‘character’ names chalked on. As Dirac, Pinder has no need to do so, since this ritual has made him multiple.)

I go into this level of detail to give a sense of the piece’s style, which seems to me a significant attempt to make theatre with the vocabulary of performance without setting out to undermine or ridicule the former. It is thoroughly sincere in an attempt to combine (rather than distinguish) a definite fiction and reality without resorting to make-believe. I write ‘definite’ to move away from presentations of a real, but ambigious, act that allows multiple possible fictions to (half) form in the audience member’s mind. In that, Kings of England acheive the folksy storytelling of New International Encounter with the modus operandi of Lone Twin. The component parts are individual ritualistic actions that coagulate into fragments of fiction.

What follows is a recreation, not simply as re-enactment, but as re-realisation. This invocation of the past aims to affect the present and, in some way, alter the future.

*****

Asked at the Solvay Conference where he was going on his holidays, Dirac remained silent. Twenty minutes later he replied, “Why do you want to know?” Here, Kings of England retell and then recreate this incident and in doing so set it up as somehow prescriptive. It becomes, at its most basic level, a plea for consideration over knee-jerk response, a campaign for slowness over acceleration towards terminal velocity, a call for precision in communication rather than a reliance on the acceptance of symbols, norms and understanding. In that, it could be the perfect beginning to the whole. One that, like the cynical Natwest adverts, asserts: “There is another way, you know.”

Zoom out and Dirac’s response functions as the most perfect punchline. It is a post-modern Morecambe and Wise gag: a straight question given a goofy response that, unintentionally, belittles the asker. Sit through it in real time, however, and it is variously droll, confrontational, peaceful, unsteady, taught and electric.

It does, of course, recall famous silences of the past. Unsurprisingly, there are immediate echoes of John Cage’s 4.33, in that we become attuned to the sounds of silence. Here, after a certain while, I found myself seeing differently. Not just a black box, but one etched with chalk markings and peeling paint. A room that is defiantly irregular, despite the impression of rectangularity and plain planes. It also calls to mind the “most perfect silences” of Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess.

Because Kings of England have already provided the anecdote, one’s first reaction on hearing the question, “Where are you going on your holidays?” is to wonder what will happen next. It gains a flirtatious edge. For those not already forewarned, the question is whether they will go the whole hog, whether we are facing twenty full minutes of silence. As this question melts into realisation, an odd game of chicken emerges. There is a note of confrontation about it, as if it’s daring us to sit through the silence or else daring us to disrupt it. We in turn are daring them to continue. After all, it must be more uncomfortable up there, out front, on stage. Mustn’t it?

After four minutes or so, someone, a woman to my left, leaves quietly. Not so quietly that she doesn’t break the silence momentarily. For all that she tries, she can’t slip out unnoticed. The room is too still for that. Her action changes the temperature. Behind me, among a group of students, whispers become murmurs become performative coughs. A number of them get up, deliberately, showily, and leave in turn. Perhaps they are too awkward. Perhaps they are unwilling to see anything in this but a blank. An audience seems to be deserting a piece and there’s something rather exciting about that.

But there’s also something unnerving about it. There’s a trickle of doubt as to whether these deserters are not somehow involved, collaborators or co-conspirators. When a scream goes off and some rushes to escape, it almost lets the excess pressure out and, after an initial tingle, the room settles once more.

Momentarily, probably about fifteen minutes in, I thought about hostages and, particularly, about the Moscow theatre taken over by Chechen rebels. Nobody leaves (anymore). Nobody moves (too much). Only it’s less extreme than that: a detention, perhaps, or else an assembly absolutely broken, as if with embarrassment or shame. Nobody speaks. Nobody can.

This, I think, is where Kings of England are driving: the impossibility of meaningful communication. This is, after all, the result of a simple question: “Where are you going on your holidays?” All it seeks is a one-word reply – Brighton, perhaps, or Magaluf – and yet, it has led to a monumental impasse. Unlike Cage’s, this silence is not just silence: it is not an arbitrary segment of time and it has no bearing on the abstract concept. Instead it is a particular. It is defined by its frame: the question and answer; its cause and its endpoint. If you think about it, every question is followed by such a silence and every subsequent answer is preceded by a gap in time. If questions cannot be answered properly, the best a response can do is satisfy. It is a making do, a passable attempt, but nevertheless, inaccurate and incomplete. The whole means of communication slowly breaks down. It realises its own futility. And so we sit in silence.

*****

Later, there is another silence. It is nowhere near as long and it is nowhere near as charged. In fact, it is the absolute opposite of its fraught, neurotic predecessor. It is the silence of peace and comfort.

Pinder/Dirac stands in the middle of the stage. His shirt is unbuttoned slightly, his sleeves are rolled up and his blazer is removed. Onto the stage steps The Parrot That Thinks, a figure we have previously been told about in a neat fable (originally from Farmelo):

“There was a man who went to a pet shop, bought a Parrot and tried to teach it to talk, but without success. The man took the bird back to the shop and asked for another, explaining to the shop manager that he wanted a Parrot that talked. The manager obliged and the man took another Parrot home, but this one also said nothing. So the man went back angrily to the shop manager and said: ‘You promised me a parrot that talks, but this one doesn’t say anything.’ The shop manager paused for a minute and struck his head with his hand, and said: ‘Oh that’s right, you wanted a parrot that talks. Please forgive me. I gave you the Parrot that thinks!’”

The Parrot That Thinks (Bryony Kimmings in a pair of brightly coloured wings/flamenco sleeves) performs a dance that grows increasingly restless. It’s not awkward, but trance-like, increasingly committed and wrapped up in the movement. Her feathers flutter like a cyclone of colour. Pinder/Dirac watches her intently. It’s the first time his eyes have come to rest on anything. When the dance finishes, they make eye contact. It is a clean gaze, very deep and very comfortable. They seem like lovers. It’s the sort of eye contact that comes post-coitally: one that looks inside another, one that smiles without needing to move the lips.

A hat is placed on Pinder/Dirac’s head. It is a trucker cap, white at the front. On it, in cartoon lettering, are the words: “I’ll do it tomorrow. Today I’m going fishing.” The two sit at the front of the stage, their sides touching, and they stare out. They could be on a park bench or a porch. The weather is definitely nice. The sun is possibly setting. Or rising. Either way you know the sky looks beautiful and serene. They are silent.

This silence, then, is one that need not speak. It is the sort against which real love is so often defined or measured. It is comfortable. Two people alone together, almost in equilibrium. They are not lonely, but nor do they need each other. They simply are and they are, together.

In relation to the first, it marks an acceptance of the terms of existence, that is, a coming to terms with the impossibility of communication: a Parrot and Physicist both content just to think. Perhaps that’s a saddening thought, the idea that happiness involves a quiet retreat from others. Atomisation as a good thing. Perhaps it’s rather more hopeful, that the awkwardness of the social encounter can be overcome. Atomisation as a comforting possibility. To be honest, I don’t know.

Either way, somewhere in these two silences, Kings of England seem to be setting the ground rules, the base conditions, for a new century. One of reflection and consideration, that thinks before it speaks and does so only when necessary. One as happy to listen as it is to offer an opinion and never, ever speaks for the sake of it; that never wastes words, treating them as a scarce commodity and not as an endless resource. A century that restores the meaning of meaning.

Photograph: Kings of England

2 Comments

  1. Really nice piece, thank you. Having not seen the show (yet), but being most eager to, this has served to whet my appetite even more.

    Nice to hear that K-of-E are continuing to define/explore that aesthetic of (what I often perceive as) a kind of hopeful melancholy.

    During the silence, to what extent do you feel like the performance (as such) is handed over to the audience? Does the (long) silence transfer expectation in a way that you feel responsible for it, or rather that both you and the performers are watching it, whatever it may be, together?

    W

  2. i agree trueman. i do indeed.

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