Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: you’ll see [me sailing in antarctica], National Theatre

Review: you’ll see [me sailing in antarctica], National Theatre

The highest compliment I can pay to non zero one’s latest piece is that on getting home I tried to buy tickets for my two brothers, both of whom are rather sceptical about experimental forms of theatre.

That should tell you something of the show’s tone. It puts you in mind of your nearest and dearest with a final singeing of sentimentality, and that sight feelgood teariness makes you want to pass on a kindly gesture. In actual fact, those are the weakest elements of a show that starts scientific, achieves something remarkable then resorts to pandering to individual audience members to finish. Alright, so it’s rather lovely – that feel good teariness, the intoxication of introspection – but it’s also rather shamefacedly indulgent.

Even so, this is non zero one’s best show since their breakthrough hit Would Like To Meet.

Anyway, like many an emerging company, non zero one are interested in memory. On the roof terrace at the back of the National Theatre, we’re sat around a large round table with a reflective Perspex surface. Floating above, like an oversized jellyfish, is a large helium balloon lit up from the inside. It’s like an urban woodland clearing; a 21st century Fairy Ring. We’re given an earpiece with a microphone and told about the process by which we perceive the world and lock those perceptions into memories.

And, of course, we know all this a bit, but non zero one explain it brilliantly; here it’s artfully put and delivered with the uncontainable over-excitement that marks children’s television.

According to neuroscientists Daniel Kahneman, an experience lasts three seconds. The sensory information received in that period of time is parcelled up and banked. Our senses feed us approximations and memory is even more reductive, but nonetheless still surprisingly vivid, as nonzeroone prove by resurrecting a personal memory in each of us. They work as if restoring an oil painting. Suddenly I had the smell of fake blood, its stickiness against my fingers and the temperature of a summer’s evening in 2000 in mind.

With a wonderful rug pull, however, we’re told that up to 60% of this has been concocted in the present moment and bears no relation to actual events. The next day, I realised that I had entirely misremembered what I was wearing. (Or had I misremembered misremembering? Eh?)

Our most accurate memories are formed when we are at our most present and the show morphs into a memory training session, priming one’s sense until they approach a heightened state of receptiveness. Then we are asked to stand up and turn around.

Looking out over the city, as the circular platform starts turning, is a phenomenal experience. All of a sudden, you’re faced with a high-definition panorama. Everything’s crisp. Everything’s vivid. You catch colours – spots of blue or red light – in your periphery. You see spaces under bridges and décor through windows. You see the nuts and bolts and stains on nearby walls, and the flickering of flags at 200 metres, and the aerials silhouetted on the National’s rooftop. You see CDs dangling in windows and lovers kissing goodbye and buses surging over Waterloo bridge.

It’s dizzying, like breathing pure oxygen. It’s not quite a sensory overload, but a new perspective – or rather, perhaps, an old perspective refreshed. Your eyes are newly unaccustomed and your surroundings no longer gleaned through a mist of lazy assumption. It quietly urges you to live a fuller life.

Really, that’s all non zero one need to do. That is quite extraordinary enough. Yet they insist on considering the future in terms of memories to come. They speed you on to the last thirty seconds of your life, asked to imagine the flashback that Hollywood tells us to expect in a game of free association. There’s no denying the pleasure of this – and, even, the benefits of sorting and perhaps being surprised by one’s priorities – but it shares with much interactive work that quality of stroking its audience, indulging them. For all it’s gushy optimism, it feels cheap and, what’s more, unnecessary. I’d have been quite happy to keep turning, taking in all of London’s minutiae instead.

Photograph: Ludo Des Cognets

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