Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 9 January, 2008

One of the hot topics in British theatre at the moment is text versus event. Despite Arts Council assurances, many practitioners believe that funding is being reallocated towards trendy circus-skills ventures and the like; conversely, accusations fly that some critics are reactionary in exalting the playwright when the essence of a theatre experience is its liveness. Carrie Cracknell’s “dance theatre collaboration”, which closes her and Natalie Abrahami’s first season as artistic directors at the Gate, illustrates both sides of the argument.
In conception, the 40-minute piece is an astute balance of words and dance. A middle-aged man (Simon Molloy) narrates into a microphone an account of the party which he did not know was his parents’ farewell to the world, and his subsequent discovery of their joint suicide: they preferred to go together rather than be separated by the mother’s cancer. He describes a photograph from his childhood of the family on a clifftop; meanwhile, two younger performers enact some of the events recounted, but principally manifest the motifs. Foremost of these is intimacy, in various forms. Ben Duke and Petra Soor’s pas de deux show their bodies meshing efficiently together; this is intimacy as a fact rather than an emotional significance, and when they repeatedly save each other from falling, the sense is not of trust or relief but simple assurance in one another. The structure of the company – two young dancers, one older actor – also illustrates that the parents’ closeness unintentionally excludes their son. The movement speaks to us as the words do not.
But only to some extent. There is a sense that this is a small piece because the hybrid form might not bear that much more; it is a snapshot or a short story rather than a feature film or a full drama. Moreover, the design (which permeates the entire venue, foyer and all) is filmic: Katharine Williams’ lighting flickers and strobes suggestively, and Garance Marneur shows us the stage framed in cinema-screen proportions, having otherwise literally reconstructed the fourth wall. I’ve wondered before what stage designers think this does for a live experience; in a small and, yes, intimate space like the Gate, and for a piece intended to demonstrate the directness of non-verbal communication, it is even more mystifyingly contradictory.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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