Another week, another show – this time from the !Metro Arts Independents 2011 series. It’s always fun to be at the first performance of a premiere play; there are no preconceptions, nothing to prepare you for what is to come. Well, I lie (a little) about this, having chatted last week with Nigel Poulton the director and also co-writer (along with long-time collaborator Tim Dashwood).
Nigel warned me that some audiences may be confused by the play. He went on that it was, among other things, ‘about’ hanging on to things long past their use-by date – whether those things are psychological or material – obsessions, preconceptions, needs, words, things, and even people. So, as I sat pre-show looking at the dozens and dozens of suitcases on the set of Dead Cargo, I began to start threading together the clues Nigel had given me with what I could see in front of me. I had the suitcases sorted; they were the material expressions – symbols – of the ‘invisible baggage’ we carry about with us. Right. I was starting to feel a bit more confident – getting my head ready for the kind of play that I’d be seeing. I fancied it would be a bit of psycho-realism with expressive movement.
I knew about the movement – see the aforesaid interview re Meyerhold’s Theatrical Bio-Mechanics in Related Articles (below). I knew the script had been written by Messrs Poulton and Dashwood – what to expect in that regard? No idea – this would be a first exposure to their work, at least for me. The set – great by the way – looked messy, deliberately so. Was it meant to stand for the detritus of our lives, maybe? At this point I ran out of clues and started chatting with a friend. What I didn’t do was to read the program. As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t because there was a clue in the Director’s note which would have sent me on quite another track to the one I pursued during the show and on the drive home. So I’m going to riff a little in this review on how a play – or this particular play – worked on me, about how it sent me down particular tracks in my head.
I’m not sure if it’s a ‘real’ genre, but I’m going to label this work poetic-absurdism because it has all the ingredients of absurd theatre laced with poetry. ‘Poetic Absurdism’ works for me – besides, it’s fun thinking up a new ‘-ism’ when you’re ratting through the theatre genres box. Dead Cargo is funny and frightening and challenging; it’s tough on actors and the audience. If you like your theatre easy and cut and dried, then you won’t find it with this work. One of the characters played by Belinda Raisin (who arrives from ‘out there’ with a red suitcase and in a suspiciously coffin-like box) asks the others again and again, ‘What is going on?’ and ‘What is happening?’ I’m willing to bet there were many in the audience feeling just the same. What you need to do is let go of that left brain organising – as I tried to do before the show had even started – and let the performance work on you.
Here’s the trick to entering the absurd, poetic world of Dead Cargo – just let the words and the movement and the atmosphere have their way with you in the way music does; in the way an abstract painting suggests a meaning that is yours alone; in the way the emotion that lies just under the surface of a line or two of poetry will release something in the one who reads or hears it; in the way the sight of a body arcing through space has its own expressive impact – often experienced – in a reflexive muscular reaction by a viewer. This is the way Dead Cargo works, it seems to me. Realism it ain’t.
And what did it all mean then? I can only say what resonated for me rather than what logical meaning my consciousness or sub-consciousness made of it. Dead Cargo worked powerfully on my imagination, and so I found myself bombarded by sensations and vivid and half-remembered experiences from elsewhere. So, what tracks did my imagination run down, what ingredients did I take to the dream factory last night?
- Echoes in the text of the couplet form used in William Blake‘s Auguries of Innocence
- Blake’s and Hieronymous Bosch‘s images – especially those of Hell (Blake: above; Bosch: on right)
- The screams of souls or people or both in torment
- The trains and the furnaces of Auschwitz and the jumpy black and white images of bodies tumbling into pits – men, women, children, families
- The piles of things left behind – now collected as exhibits in Holocaust museums
- The white-hot lights of interrogation
- Waiting rooms and limbo, liminal states – gatekeepers and the ‘He’ who never arrives – yes, you can’t not think about Mr Godot in this one, which is probably where I grabbed on to the absurd handle for some traction
… plus everything in between that threads together one’s images and sensations to make it, finally, all of a piece. The bundle was a feeling of a night ‘well spent’ in theatre, one which wrong-footed me and delighted me by turn.
I have a feeling we will be seeing much more of Nigel Poulton in the director’s chair. His work on Dead Cargo is rich and engaging and strong. Along with the contribution by the performers, Phil Slade’s terrific soundscape and Jason Glenwright’s lighting design interweave to create the performative world of the play.
There are many, many threads in this very rich tapestry of ideas spun by the artists and creatives – and by the audience. As someone once said “There’s no theatre till there’s an audience, that final, vital ingredient.” The abundance of ideas – the lavishness and intensity of the work is its great strength and also, perhaps, its greatest weakness. Can a work be too big, too rich, too meaty? I want to say no, of course not. However, I did find the text of the play overly-wordy at times, even bloated. Is there another play in there, or was it merely that it wanted to lead me down alleyways which, in the play being created in my head, just didn’t make sense. Ah, my play and trying to make sense – but that’s poetic-realism for you, and not the territory of Dead Cargo!
Of course, there is no one meaning in a work like this or, perhaps, in any work of art. Making sense of the experience – of the work of art which, for me includes this ‘writing out’ of the experience the morning after – is its meaning for me and for no one else. Nor is one meaning any more right than another. I imagine some could find Dead Cargo pretentious and lose patience with it, for it asks much of the audience in a collaborative effort ‘in the moment’ of creation. This is what makes for intriguing and ultimately satisfying theatre – when it works for you. Equally, it makes for frustration when it doesn’t. As you may have gathered, I loved it.
There is no doubting the strength of the performances by Mr Poulton, Mr Dashwood, Ms Raisin and Deb Sampson who plays the garrulous, logic-obsessed gatekeeper figure. Tim Dashwood and Belinda Raisin, in particular, weave the dynamics of the slippery, difficult and every-changing text with the lovely physicality of their performances. I get a real thrill when I see actors’ bodies pushed beyond the often too small, constrained gestures which form the choreography of realism’s expressiveness. Here bodies and voices mesh in a composition that we see rarely on stage.
Dead Cargo plays in the Sue Benner Theatre at !Metro Arts from Tuesday to Saturdays till 26 March.
And about that programme note – the Director mentions hearing a story of survival which referenced Vietnam. He goes on to say that the play is not about that story but about many stories of the experience of displacement and dispossession. Now, if I had read that note first, I think my response would have been entirely different. Certainly, the world I was spinning inside my head was composed of largely mid-20th century and European threads. A reference to helicopters in a recurring story by the characters meant my temporal world hit a brick wall! When you plant a seed in the imagination it can take off in directions you might never have foreseen. I should have read the programme note first – or maybe I shouldn’t have! What do you think?
- A system made for actors: Nigel Poulton (Interview) (actorsgreenroom.net)