The influence of Complicite and Robert Lepage is strongly felt in Water, the newly devised work by the excellent Filter Company, premiered now in David Farr's deeply involving and imaginatively multi-media production at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
But the Filter folk have digested the lessons learnt from these great forebears with such insight, and built upon them with such creative bottle and considered bravura, that Water is a distinctive and distinguished piece of theatre. You emerge after an unbroken 90 minutes feeling that you have been therapeutically immersed in an absorbing, vivid and scrupulously coherent new world.
A show whose message is the urgent need for collective action against climate change and the perils (environmental and geopolitical) that it poses may make you fear the worst – an Al Gore-fest tricked out with physical-theatre arty movement. But don't be put off by such prejudices. Water has points to make, but the interwoven stories it tells, and the bold theatrical devices it employs, pull your sympathies in unexpected directions and result in a piece that could never be accused of being preachy or didactic.
As in Complicite's Mnemonic and A Disappearing Number, the show begins with a lecture, and as with those pieces and many of Robert Lepage's works, it finds revealingly pointed correspondences and/or divergences between plaited narratives. Crucially, it's similar, too, in releasing massive metaphoric energy from its central symbols. The physical properties of water accrue a wider human meaning that derives from, but extends beyond, the chemical composition of this element.
At the start, we go back to 1981 and a keynote lecture delivered by a visiting English Professor of marine biology at Vancouver University, Peter Johnson. Sounding an early note of alarm at the rising temperature of the oceans and the part played in this by carbon emissions, he gives his admonition a graphic social dimension by pointing out that water is a "sociable" element, its electrons reaching out to bond with those of an opposite charge. Will mankind follow water's example and arrest the inexorable progression towards disastrous flooding by cooperating for the higher good?
From this molecule of meaning, the rest of the piece ramifies in ways that offer a sophisticated take on how private emotions enmesh with public policy. Played with a remarkable fluidity against translucent screens on a sparely stocked stage with electronic music loops and a juicily plopping sound design, the piece fields two internally and externally contrasted couples.
Able to commit to the planet but unable to commit to a single person, an ardent New Labour negotiator at Tony Blair's final summit (Victoria Moseley) finds herself beleaguered both because the incoming Brown regime is blackmailing her not to make any "Blair legacy" commitments on the environment, and because her former boyfriend (Ollie Dimsdale) is beaten in his challenge to break the world cave-diving challenge as a result of fruitlessly waiting for her to offer him a long-term pledge.
She winds up in the same Vancouver hotel as Graham Johnson, the depressive environmentalist son of the now deceased Professor, whom he is dismayed to discover reneged on his early idealism in the interests of a second marriage and professional success. Stubbornly clinging to the old image of his father, Graham engages in bitter conflict with his worldlier half-sibling.
The stories in devised pieces of this kind can seem prefabricated to suit the themes, but Water makes us feel the emotional turbulence on our pulses and continually complicates our loyalties. On one level, for example, the cave-diver represents the sort of arrogant individualism that's part and parcel of the scientific progress for which we are now paying the price. But we seem to be right inside his skin as, with his heartbeat manually thumped on a microphone and a sickeningly suspended countdown, his quest for subterranean supremacy ends in the silence of extinction. Highly recommended.
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