It is the experiments with narrative, however, that offer a unifying feature of the best of the British work at the festival. In The Observatory, the Welsh Scala Revue Fantasia company create an imaginary world in which a twin, separated from her sibling by accidental death from a lightning bolt, patrols the weather observatory which is her home. Bereft by the loss, she considers 24 ways of committing suicide, including being intentionally struck by lightning. The reality offered here is hardly recognisable, and the story progresses with a kind of one-step-forward-two-steps-back unfamiliarity. Through repetition of key moments, we gradually glean a kind of coherence. But writer/ performer Tracy Spottiswoode and director Chris Rowby make a classic mistake of much evolutionary visual work. They cannot resist leaving in striking effects which bear only the most glancing relevance to their themes. The sequence of frozen poses reminiscent of a saucy Victorian flip-card is excellent but entirely superfluous.
The most sophisticated producers of visual theatre use repetition and free association with meticulous accuracy. Louder Than Word's The Counting of Years and Scarlet Theatre's Papers Walls are prime examples. The original inspiration for The Counting of Years was that maddening question "What if...", hooked to a tangible(ish) story. It is a loose enough structure to allow for different subjective readings, but for me it was a re-examination of Harry the night porter's last hours and whether or not he could have saved the red-headed Woman who shoots herself in a hotel bedroom. Trapped in an urban war zone, Harry's fate is to be killed by sniper fire, but before that his choices are theoretically limitless. The Woman is as old as the century, and representative of it, but there is a tender moment when Harry's love almost makes her real and savable. Repetition is crucial, allowing the possible variations of this stark theme to be replayed with all the quirk and compassion of human nature, before its inevitable end.
Paper Walls similarly syncopates its central narrative with two distinct versions, only this time the events are unalterable. The story of the murder of an abusing father/ husband by a woman and her adolescent daughters is told from both the outside and the inside of Alice Powers' and Alice Purcell's Wendy House set. The tyrannical domestic regime which we glimpse from the outside in the first half (the boiling of an egg to absolute precision - any inaccuracy is punished by beating) is revealed from the split-open inside of the house after the murder. In a gut-wrenching twist, the tyrant is no longer there to enforce his routine but the women have been so oppressed for so long that they are unable to cope with their freedom. The routine is slavishly repeated. It is a formal experiment told with visual elan which has a serious narrative justification. Like The Counting of Years, it represents a satisfying synthesis of form and content.
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