Noises On, Actors Out – Storytelling Upside Down

The festival of radical new performance NOW 17 at the Yard Theatre ends with two sophisticated investigations into the real and the imagined. The Foley Explosion and History, History, History explore, forget and reinvent the rules of storytelling.

Spoiler

Il Festival di new performance NOW 17 al Teatro The Yard, di Londra, si conclude con due spettacoli di ricerca, incentrati intorno alla costruzione di senso e al rapporto tra realtà e finzione. Sperimentazione tecnico-narrativa e capacità di emozionare corrono di pari passo in entrambi i lavori, che si discostano dalla definizione di “spettacolo teatrale” per piazzarsi nell’universo più ampio della live art/performance. The Foley Explosion è un ingegnoso esercizio di stile sull’utilizzo di Foley sound e looping technology (che consiste nel registrare suoni dal vivo, campionarli e ripeterli) all’interno della narrazione. History, History, History di Deborah Pearson è un’affascinante e comicamente intricato viaggio (si passa da un film dimenticato su un campione di calcio alla rivoluzione Ungherese del ’56 fino a un grande attore che scappa in Canada per diventare pianista di piano-bar) alla ricerca della verità sulla propria famiglia. A fine serata, si esce dalla sala con un peso specifico diverso.

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NOW 17 is designed to be «a celebration, an explosion, a provocation» and its five weeks of new performance, staged this year from the 31st of January to the 4th of March, seem to have what it takes to challenge the boundaries of theatre practice. Five new voices have been selected, and paired with five more established artists to form a double bill of shows running for five nights at the Yard. First rule of NOW 17, it does not include any plays, but rather works which are «sitting broadly within the worlds of live art/performance». A breath of fresh air seems to blow: free from established narrative technics, a conventional use of space, even from the presence of the actor, this year’s works make a large use of movies, TV programmes and YouTube videos, often replacing the actor itself.

Julie Rose Bower leads the first dance of the final week of the festival, with the audio-performance The Foley Explosion. Here, Foley sound is blended with looping technology. The work is about how spoken words and sound effects collaborate to build a story, and how sound can lose its meaning if placed in different contexts. We listen to a story, and certain noises and sounds immerse us into the plot. These sympathetic sounds are meant to connect with our memory and activate our personal interpretation of the on-going. But there is something that problematizes our understanding: these sound effects are being produced on stage. We are aware that the squeaky sound of someone walking on snow is produced by an ordinary sandbag, and the dramatic thunder crash is nothing but a balloon hit by Bower’s hands. Like in a sort of Brechtian distancing effect, stage illusion is disrupted. Yet, the performer is asking us to believe her story, and this is what we do. Because, as Bower says, the sound “is something physical that you put inside your body, it’s a vibration that works on you on a deep flesh level (…). It’s an invitation for truth telling which goes beyond the literal”. We find ourselves assisting to our own construction on meaning: we look at how our own imagination is triggered by the sound, despite it is produced by an object that has nothing to do with the plot. And there is something touching in our inclination to move from the real to the fictional world, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, through our sensory memory for sound. And there is also a moving correlation between these everyday objects put out of context – the sandbag, the balloon – and the storyteller’s alienation, because of her being placed a long way from home – in Russia – and feeling that the meaning of things shifts for her. Perhaps the story itself can be sometimes overshadowed by Bower’s mesmerising de-contestualisation of sound – the precision with which she produces, records and accumulates noises as she tells the story is indeed what tends to catch our attention. But eventually, this emotional distance is maybe the most fascinating aspect of the performance.

Is there anyone who has never fantasied to find out more about his/her family, and got lost in old photographs and family videos? Canadian artist Deborah Pearson dedicates her show – the performance documentary History, History, History – to those who have, at least once in their lives, felt the obsessing need to discover the precise sequence of events that led to their birth, or, at least, the vicissitudes shaping their family’s destiny. The performance is about a movie, but also about the coincident Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and a family who decides to flee to Canada. More precisely, it is about the artist’s intricate journey on search of the truth. And she does it by exploring the history of a country where she has never lived, whose language she does not understand, examining a movie which was not released, and trying to unfold the story of a movie star who she has never met – and who happens to be Pearson’s grandfather. Not surprisingly, the result is a quite intricate performance, in which the spectator becomes gradually involved by discovering more and more clues. And the most interesting aspect is the complex layers of meaning which paint the whole picture. A picture where personal recollection and history are inextricably tangled together.
Everything starts from the artist’s obsession for a Hungarian movie starring her grandfather, about a fraudulent pen salesman who gets mistaken for the famous striker Ferenc Puskas. The movie, produced during the early stages of the Soviet Union’s 45 year post-war occupation of Hungary, includes some satirical elements – and we discover that Tibor Méray, the scriptwriter, is uncredited in the film as he was denounced as a political undesirable. On 4th November 1956, just a couple of weeks after the Hungarian uprising, the movie is meant to be premiered at the Corvin Theatre in Budapest. But suddenly, the theatre becomes a strategic base for the Hungarian resistance while, on that very day, Soviet troops storm the capital. The film is therefore not released, and Pearson’s grandfather, the movie star, flees to Canada with his family.
Videos and pictures, used by Pearson over and over again during the entire show, are powerful tools that make us feel like we really understand what is going on. They make us move uninterruptedly from the universal level – the Hungarian history – to the personal level, so that the whole story becomes much more human and affecting. In particular, the interviews to Pearson’s mother and grandmother (their real voices, their memories and intimate thoughts) make Pearson’s family somewhat familiar to us, as if we knew them intimately. Sophistication, subtle humour, the obstinate fascination with the forgotten, a graceful way of handling documentary material as an integral part of the performance’s construction, the ability to go fluently from the general to the particular, from the political to the private: these are just some of the virtues of the performance. Perhaps the most notable one is its very personal narrative structure: it takes its time to unfold, to reveal its secrets, and, angelically, it does not make any concession to our expectations.

The Foley Explosion and History, History, History have been staged at:
The Yard Theatre Unit 2A Queen’s Yard White Post Lane London – E9 5EN

until Saturday the 4th of March, h 19.30

The Foley Explosion by Julie Rose Bower
History, History, History by Deborah Pearson
A House on Fire Commission with Théâtre Garonne (Toulouse) and bit teatergarasjen (Bergen) funded by Culture Europe
Developed in part at Norwich and Norfolk Festival, Progress Festival (Toronto) and the National Theatre Studio

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