Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Physical theatre that works on many levels

Bradon Smith visits the Greenwich and Docklands Festival to see Wired Aerial Theatre's latest production, one of this year's TippingPoint commissions

As the World Tipped is a spectacular piece, written and directed by Nigel Jamieson, lying somewhere on the joins between theatre, cinema and circus arts. It opens in a bureaucratic setting with a roll-call of extinct species. An official takes a sheet of paper, reads the name of the lost species, stamps it and transfers it to another pile. Around him others bring the pieces of paper, at first singly and then in boxes, until they tower around him. As the boxes obscure his desk, news comes through of the COP15 summit, and the scene moves to Copenhagen.

And with that, the narrative of the piece is pretty much done. Because as we listen to excerpts from speeches from COP15 by Brown, Obama, and representatives of the Alliance of Small Island States; and as the negotiators struggle to reach an agreement; and as the characters on stage become increasingly exasperated as successive drafts are rejected; as this happens, the stage begins to tip towards the audience.

First boxes and papers begin to slide, then desks, then performers, who struggle to scramble up the inclining stage. As the stage becomes steeper, climbing becomes more difficult – some of the actors have reached the top and are hanging precariously on to the edge, but others are having difficulty. And the audience reacts with a combination of pleasure at the spectacle, cheering the performers in the manner of a pantomime, but with also a suggestion of anxiety, a sort of vicarious vertigo.

Hoisted by a crane, the stage becomes a vertical stage-screen; and as images are projected on to it, the performers – now wired to harnesses – tumble down the face of it and, in the vignettes that follow, interact with the images in a way that is convincing and compelling. As the text of draft negotiations scrolls down the screen, for example, the performers run, leaping the paragraph breaks; or as we watch scenes of floods, the actors are bounced around by the roiling water.

The movement of the performers across the screen is achieved by attaching them via pullies to operators who scamper up and down two ladders running along the sides of the screen-stage. The hanging performers are deftly manipulated, so that they appear immersed in the scene projected behind them. In one nice moment we see a girl scampering up the inclines of a graph projected on the screen behind her (CO2? GDP?) and sliding down the declines, with her operator administering a jolt as she 'hits' the bottom of each downward trend.

One result of this mechanism is that the performers themselves have only limited control over their own movements, aiding the illusion. But it is also an important part of the piece's visual metaphor – the characters appear at the mercy of the environment staged or screened behind them: at first, the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, and then the unstable climate we have created.

As the World Tipped is a spectacle, but it also reveals evidence of a depth to its thinking. In one scene, a character is consumed by fire in a rather clichéd post-apocalyptic landscape. As she hangs limply, this scene is in turn swallowed by a TV screen, leaving the performer suspended in the frame. The moment suggests, perhaps, an awareness of the inadequacy of this very form of dramatic representation.

Technically the performance is dramatic – but the piece achieves a range of tone, with moments of levity and real poignancy. It also hints at issues beyond that of climate change. If I have a criticism, it is of a few projected images of sad, subcontinental faces staring in to the camera – a couple of moments felt like they were performed against the backdrop of an Oxfam poster campaign. In line with this was the ending, in which the performers 'tear' away the “The End” screen to reveal a screen asking us to “Demand Change Now”, which felt more heavy-handed than the preceding piece.

Otherwise, this is a great piece of physical theatre: dramatic, entertaining and with a conceit that works on many levels and from many angles. Especially the vertical.

Bradon Smith is a research associate in the Geography department at the Open University and AHRC Climate Change Research Fellow at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

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