Following my encounter with Beckett last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and the ensuing roaring hunger of my being for more like it (more deep, dark, delicious artistic abstraction), the Cambridge theatre world gave me The Hand That Takes by artists CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace at the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday night.
The Hand That Takes is a spiky title that reflects the fiery, crackling political theme of the show, ‘the sleight-of-hand trick that transformed bank debt into our collective debt and ushered in austerity measures, cuts and privatisation’. The show is described as ‘an immersive promenade performance using live voice, recorded sound and darkness…’.
I wondered about the term ‘promenade performance’: this meant that I would walk into the black cube of the Junction’s studio theatre, J3, and be plunged into complete darkness, that I would need to put one arm up defensively as if it were holding a shield, and use the other hand to feel, that my feet would step forward tentatively and fearfully, at first. What my hands felt on either side of me were the smooth, wooden walls of a maze. At regular intervals, there were interruptions in the walls – gaps – which were puzzling, and after the first two minutes or so, they began to glow red. It was too dark to see the identities of the other audience members – we were all just dark figures moving slowly around – but when the red began to glow through the gaps, we all drifted towards the meagre light.
What we saw were enclosures that each held a huge speaker emitting the cavernous, thunderous bass-filled soundscape that filled our ears and which sent reverberations through the wood walls we were holding onto as we walked slowly around. The red glow came from messages running across stock ticker machines next to the speakers…the market needs to believe…sources are knowledgeable…the market is telling us we got it right…futures are up this morning…this government is on your side… The darkness, deep bass drone and hypnotic and coded messages were heavily evocative of the subterranean dread that I can feel running through our society around the issues of how we are governed and what politicians are doing with our money. There was a sense of barely-suppressed, angry glee in the deployment of artistic effects that symbolise, frankly, evil: glowing red lights, electric chords signifying ‘dread’, loss of identity and power in darkness, a maze.
And then nature, beauty and truth cut through dread and darkness, and the dimensions of the piece broke out of the surface themes of ‘debt’ and ‘politics’ into the philosophic realms where we contemplate our humanity: the singing started. A trio of male voices, I think two tenors and a bass, suddenly rang out loudly in lush harmonies, forming an exhilarating contrast to the electronic soundscape and flashing machine messages. It reminded me of middle-period Richard Strauss choral music: it contained the strange aches of twentieth century atonality mixed with reassuring returns to harmonies in deep agreement. It was beautifully composed (by Cheryl Francis-Hoad), and beautifully, powerfully sung (by Sheridan Edward, Aris Nadirian and Jon Stainsby), and I was transfixed by it. It was hard to tell in the dark where the singers were, and I assumed they were ‘off-stage’, i.e off this curious, interactive, maze-stage – until during one of the breaks in the singing, a figure came to stand at one of the glowing red gaps in the maze walls near to me and after a moment started singing – and then I realised the singers were walking around immersed in the audience. The text for the songs was the same messages that were running across the stock ticker machines. The moment where this piece deeply captured me came while watching the singer beside me as he sang the words, ‘Growth without end…without purpose…this government is on your side…’ It reminded me of the doxology we sang every Sunday in my childhood church back in Michigan: ’World without end…a-men…a-men’, and this resonance made me shiver, as I thought of the alignment between the pillars of our establishment – religion, banks, politicians, media – and their practice of co-opting language to hide, code, and euphemise behaviours that are essentially base and rotten. This was a beautiful moment where the slippery, silvery nuances of the piece’s themes came together in a little artistic vortex: //fear-debt-darkness//; //beauty-truth-Nature-humanity-(and the poignance of their lack) symbolised by the human voice (enacted by a voice achieving its fullest potential…a master tenor singing two feet away, really going for it, which resonated me head-to-toe, body, mind and soul)//; //the fullness and integrity of meaning in words (and the poignance of their lack)//.
At this point a memory rose up of Robert Wilson’s Walking, a large-scale, immersive, participatory modern theatre piece which was staged on the Norfolk coast in August 2012. I worked as a volunteer on the production, and while I was there I met the wonderful Boukje Schweigman, Dutch theatre-maker and Wilson’s artistic collaborator. She gave a talk where she used the phrase, ‘artistic language’ to describe the modes – the facets or tools – of expression that are unique to every individual artist. The Hand That Takes was my first encounter with the art of CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace, and when the singing started, I felt then that I heard and understood their ‘language’: it was heavily political in theme and enacted within a visual art installation framework, with embellishments that crossed the line over into performance. It was large, three-dimensional and sensorally immersive. It wanted to cradle the audience in its largeness and largesse. It was compelling and beautiful, and the counterpoint of the classical singing against the darkness and technologized sound felt symbolic of both a generalised feeling of hopelessness about the inability of our raised voices to fight the dark forces in our government and the immutability and irrepressibility of truth, beauty and humanity.
In other ways, The Hand That Takes had resonances with Wilson’s work: there was a measured slowness of staging that encouraged a gentle participation of imagination and senses with the piece, which allowed a gradual unfolding of the themes. It was participatory, with large-scale, strange constructions inviting contemplation. And most importantly, there was an exciting fertility rising out of its use of abstraction. When the singing started, and this other, more philosophic dimension in the piece opened, a rush of ideas flooded my mind: how the voice is a symbol for our personal contribution to society, to self-governance, to protest. The beauty of the singing evoked the idea of fineness in human nature, but at the same time, it also asked, ‘what singing or speaking is questionable…is a lie hidden in silky words?’, ‘ What does the government and media sing to us?’ The programme for the show mentions the story of the Minotaur – a Greek myth in which, on the advice of the Delphic oracle, the children of Athens are sacrificed to pay a debt they didn’t create. This allusion was another fascinating dimension in the show because Athens was the birthplace of Western democracy. And the idea of the ‘oracle’ suggested the mysterious nature of the market and the significance it casts over our lives, our society, our humanity – as well as questioning the motives of the modern ‘oracles’ who claim the role of interpreters of the mysteries of the market. It was interesting that the show also occupied this ancient/modern axis.
As I’m sure you can tell, I deeply enjoyed this experience. It sent a controlled current of anger through me that reactivated my awareness of my rights and power as a citizen of a democracy, and that felt really good. And it was another validation of my deeply-held belief that the arts are powerful and important to our humanity. As Liv Ullmann was quoted as saying recently in The Guardian (12/9/14), ‘We still think we are the audience to everything; we don’t understand we are not witnesses, we are participants. You cannot save the world, I cannot…but if we do allow beauty, if we don’t kill movies and concerts and ballets and books, we still have a chance.’ The arts are powerful because they are a choir for unique raised voices countering – questioning – the way our society works, the conduct of the government. I could see that The Hand That Takes was still rough around the edges, that it was a work in progress – and, in fact, this was its first iteration in preparation for a fuller staging later this year – but it was already coherent, powerful and fascinating, both artistically and politically, and I look forward to seeing the next round of its evolution and refinement.