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Some thoughts on… Are We Not Drawn Onwards To New ErA

Inspired by my current MA studies I’ve decided that, in 2016, I’m going to take a little more time analysing the work that I see (and that which I read) a little more.  I’ve been keen to think further about the inner workings of these performances and what endears me (or otherwise) to them.  For this I’ve borrowed the format of the academic performance analysis – looking to extrapolate the ideas behind a piece rather than just weigh my inexperienced judgement on them.

The following are some thoughts on Ontroerend Goed’s Are We Not Drawn Onward… which I saw at Theatre Royal Plymouth in the latter part of 2015.  It’s a performance which sat with me some time as, having loved much of their previous work, I found this one a little harder to digest.  This is some thoughts on that.

Ontroerend Goed’s Are We Not Drawn Onward To New ErA is, according to director Alexander Devriendt, the second show in a trilogy which started with 2012’s A History of Everything.  While the earlier show dealt in the fact of recorded events, Are We Not Drawn Onward is more speculative, a dream-like pondering on the future of the human race in relation to the lump of rock we find ourselves living on.

But the subject matter here is of secondary importance to the formal experiment which has seems to have guided the making of the piece and is certainly the talking point upon leaving the auditorium.  Devriendt has taken the idea of the palindrome (as present in the title of the show) and implemented it across the performance itself adding an area of mystery to the first half of the show as performers move in a somewhat strange manner and talk in what appears to be gibberish.

Yet, on reaching the midpoint of the show, performer Charlotte De Bruyne steps beyond the proscenium arch and addresses the audience.  As she does, the gibberish which she speaks slowly morphs into something recognisable, eventually becoming English.  A gauze is lowered and projected onto it is a video of all that has gone before in the performance.  The ‘twist’ is that this video is played backwards and suddenly all that was mysterious or confusing before makes sense – actions become reversed and gibberish becomes (slightly imperfect) English.

Viewed at its most basic, Are We Not Drawn Onward is a two act narrative; a story of the human race creating a mess, destroying nature as they attempt to build statues in their own image, before deciding to undo their destructive actions.  Yet this narrative is one which simplifies the reality almost to absurdity – the inference being that all we need to do to save the planet is to decide to take affirmative action to do so.  The terrifying reality of humanity’s destruction of planet Earth is that it is permanent and that the undoing of our impact on the world is far more complex than the initial action.

The formal experiment, the performative palindrome, is also questionable.  The preshow literature claims that the one could feasibly watch this performance either way round yet the fact that the piece involves encoding the performance to video and then showing that video back reveals this to be a falsity.  The other issue is that a palindrome, by definition, should be understandable when read from either direction and, while the physical action is readable in the first half, the dialogue is certainly not.

Are We Not Drawn Onward is a hard watch, not due to the information which is given over (this, as previously discussed, is remarkably simple) but due to the testingly slow pacing of the show.  This snail-like pacing becomes even more difficult to watch during the second half where we are being shown events we have already seen, only backwards.  Once one has watched a golden statue be slowly erected we can already picture what it will look like to slowly take it down.  The only real intrigue remaining – the content of the dialogue – is contained in three or four very short segments which, once we hear them, reveal little more about the situation of the characters on stage.

Ontroerend Goed’s work has always held traces of what might be described as ‘high art’ yet where pieces such as Audience, Fight Night and A History of Everything succeed is in the way they combine these big, complex ideas with playfulness and their energy.  They have also proven themselves masters of walking the line between complexity and pretence; 2013’s All That is Wrong, which consisted of an hour of one performer drawing on a blackboard, managed to maintain a level of youthful curiosity which took the audience through an exploration of the politics of the discovery of identity despite the simple premise.

Postmodernism is most often as much about the telling of a narrative as (if at all) the narrative itself, pitting the performer against the performance.  There is certainly an element of danger in the reversed dialogue of Are We Not Drawn Onwards and the fact that neither the audience or performer will find out how successful these utterances have been for some ten or twenty minutes leaves us with a certain level of suspense.  Yet this idea of a purposeful endangering of the performance should surely be an additional layer to a piece rather than, as here, the entire reason for it.  As impressive as this feat is, it seems a shame that the ideas which lie beneath are so texturally thin.

What Are We Not Drawn Onward shares with A History of Everything is an ability to put ourselves, as individuals and the human race as a whole, into cosmic perspective; reminding us that despite the breadth of human achievement we remain startlingly insignificant.  Perhaps the success of humanity’s apparent custody of Planet Earth does lie in how well we clean up after ourselves but, in the unlikely event that we do, it will rely as much on the logistics of how we undertake that great project as simply levelling the political will to do so.

The Moment It All Made Sense

Putting together the first ever Plymouth Fringe Festival along with Dan Baker, Matt Hall and Beth Shouler has been an honour. It’s been a chance to meet some amazing artists, invite some we already knew to this lovely city of ours and truly celebrate theatre and live performance in Plymouth.

But, amid all the funding bids and partnership conversations, I’ve often wondered what the function of such a festival is. What does it add to Plymouth’s cultural offer, which already contains a fair bit of theatre, to add a festival on top? We’re certainly not ones for doing things just for the sake of doing them – maybe this was a chance to reach new audiences or new artists, to make theatre more visible in the city or break down barriers to attendance?

I have to admit, in the chaos of tech rehearsals and keeping everything running smoothly, I’ve not had many chances to actually watch shows yet. But yesterday I managed to catch three, all in auditoriums full of faces I didn’t recognise and companies whose work would likely not have come to Plymouth had we not used the festival to prise open more theatre doors for artists.

But the moment I truly got the point of all this hard work was at roughly twenty past midnight as I wandered through an abandoned funfair on Plymouth Hoe, led by the hand of Brantley Rodgers as part of Aminal’s Night. Dream. Sleep. Perhaps it was the quiet where the rest of my week has been almost deafening or the treat of being able to focus on simply being in the world of a show rather than wondering whether I have any responsibilities if the theatre sets on fire mid-performance.

Now, I like being inside, I like early nights and I like sitting on my arse wherever possible. But the festival let me put those preferences aside and try something different. Outside of the context of the festival I might have given NDS a miss and headed home to my Stephen King novel and the last remaining Twirl but something about the energy in the city made me not want to miss out. I’d spent the day giving audience members tips on what to see and it would have felt criminal not to follow the suggestions that had been thrown my way.

And for my new found adventurous spirit I was rewarded with a touching show which provoked a real guttural emotional response and made me view the city I’ve plodded about for twenty two years through different eyes.

It wasn’t necessarily the outdoor nature of the show that hit me but the fact that it would have felt odd in a traditional season of work yet, this week, it felt completely natural. Particularly, it didn’t feel very ‘Plymouth’ and not in a ‘this is a local festival for local people’ way. Like many other shows at the festival I got the overwhelming feeling that our Janner audience, which is still fairly traditional in its preferences, would have been unlikely to take a punt on something so different but this week there’s barely any tickets left for NDS.

This week has been eye opening. During many of the fringe events which have sprouted up over the past eighteen months, the audience has been fairly static with the same supportive faces popping up again and again. Yet, so far at least, this week feels like a breakthrough. Not only are new audiences taking their seats for shows by emerging artists, they’re taking risks on the kind of work they might previously have shied away from. And, as I stared past a lut up Smeaton’s Tower at the lights making their way across the channel, it all made sense.