Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Landscape II, Battersea Arts Centre

Review: Landscape II, Battersea Arts Centre

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout.  You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur. She trusts the periphery vision more than the focused lens, the subconscious above the conscious. Her secret weapon is pleasantry: of voice, of writing, of sounds, of image. Everything is just so. Soft-focus. Close-up. Everything soothes. And…………………………….drift.

It’s a delicate, delicate balance; one that’s not entirely in Wilson’s control. The ideal dynamic is to keep the audience floating, but tethered, like weighted helium balloons. It’s inevitable that you’ll lose one or two along the way and, sure enough, I’ve not always been able to stick with Wilson’s work without succumbing to the dreaded head nods and lids of leads. Is there a greater risk that playing with a soporific in theatre, dark, warm and cosy as it is?

Here Wilson handles it better than she’s managed before. She needs to let you drift but keep you tethered and in Landscape she jolts you back into the present with a well-timed buzz of electricity and adrenaline. It ensures that, though you’re not intently focused on its every nuance, you remain alongside the piece, within its field of gravity, as it were.

Landscape II finds Wilson sat behind a desk. Its surface is a landscape in itself, strewn with papers, sound equipment and a coffee cup. She talks into a microphone and, afterwards, it takes a concerted effort to remember the concrete details of the story she was telling. You could easily tell someone about the ideas it carries, but the events it describes have all but blurred out of recollection.

There was a woman. A photographer. Vivian. She was reading letters written on brown paper, letters a century old. More. Letters written by Beatrice. Her great-grandmother? Possibly. They have the tone – formal, clipped, confessional – of correspondence from a Bronte novel, but that’s probably because she – the woman, the photographer, Vivian – also walks on the moors. Wild. Windy. Flat. Huge. Unchanging. Moody.

We see them – the moors – and her, Wilson or Vivian, both – in video footage (by Will Duke) on the set’s back wall. We see her – Wilson, Vivian – looking out to sea, a vivid Instragammed blue. We see her looking over dales, muscular, green and grey. We see her fingers caressing the camera. We see the veins on her hands, like mountain ranges on a map.

She looks across these moors and sees a rock. It looks humanoid, like a woman, staring back at her. To her, it is a woman in a burkha, a woman she knew, Meena. A woman far away. A woman she failed. A woman she failed to photograph.

Landscape II is – to me, at least, and I know I’m neglecting its feminist heart for its universal philosophy – a piece about one’s place in the world. It is about perspectives on the world; the way we receive it, be that as a series of sounds, as in Wilson’s case, or through a viewfinder, as in Vivian’s. We look out and see it, the world, the landscape, vast and unchanging. It exists – all of it – outside of us. The landscape is everything that is not us.

Yet, if we can look across a moor and see a rock as a woman, can’t someone looking the other way take us – a woman – for a rock? We are part of someone else’s landscape, just as ours is made up of others. Duke’s video implies as much, catching elbows, wrists, napes and shoulders in the same way as the contours of a landscape.

The landscape is not just the world around us, the world into which we fit right now. It is also the history that surrounds us, the worlds that were and the worlds that will be; the topography of time into which we fit. Have children, Meena advises; they make hope a possibility, for they enable the future. We are links in a chain. The combination of the letters from the past, the photographs of the present and Wilson’s own soundscore – another way of recording the world – suggests that our duty is simply to capture the present, both as a way of changing it and as a way of making any inevitable change visible, if only in hindsight. History grows out of the present.

The sense is of our own significant insignificance – that we are part of the world, not distinct from it, but that we can still have a perspective on it and so an impact on it, albeit as part of a complex system. We can’t always intervene directly and change proceedings, just as Vivian can’t prevent Meena’s death. “I saw them do it,” she, Wilson/Vivian, says, “and I could not stop them.” But we can always report and testify and in doing so, we can cause some ripple of change to the landscape that we’re part of.

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