Aftermaths: A Tear in the Meat of Vision

Laban Theatre,

13-14 and 17-18 April.

This performance began before it began, which felt appropriate for a show beginning with the end. The end, that is, as something you have to dress up for, with Bardsley encountered first via video screen, putting on a wig, false teeth, make up; or the end as words on four large screens that say The End, which, like many of the individual components of this show, are also invocations, more force fields than straightforward linguistic signifiers, conjuring this post- pre- world into existence.

Start again. In the beginning - and before the beginning that was the end - was the festival website. This fulfilled more than the usual functions. It invited the audience to dress entirely in black (which maybe 25 of the 30 or so people had followed on the night I went) and to bring a small black object no bigger than 4cm in diameter with which they wished to part. These instructions create a sense of expectation, a demand that in attending the show we are expected to take on some measure of responsibility, whatever that might mean.

All of which had a contradictory relation to what I actually experienced. In the backstage space of the Laban centre, a catwalk formed the shape of a cross, whilst four high video screens surrounded the audience to create an arena within which a confrontation could take place. Dressed in black, gold teeth, using crutches, Bardsley struggled up onto the cat walk - shaman, priest, salesman and figure of death, trailing behind her a flotilla of black balloons. Slowly, she lost her physical disabilities, shedding the crutches to become a skilled vocal-physical athlete of this church of death and rhetoric.

What follows in the hour long performance could be seen as distinct sections, each composed of a particular configuration of Bardsley’s intense persona, the haunting pulse-led electro-acoustic soundtrack, and the video projections. So one section involves Bardsley citing a litany of words that also appears near simultaneously on the four screens, marking out a territory in which theories of apocalypse, religion and the current economic situation are all connected. Phrases such as “Black Market” link these areas via playful punning. The speaking and visual manifesting of “Profit” and “Prophet” seem a key into the piece, creating a gap between word and sound the show often inhabits.

Other sections involve Bardsley’s body being covered in what looked like dayglo kneepads, which Bardsley thrusts at various audience members asking them to “feel her disease” (she gets angry if no one lays a hand on them, her voice barking them into cooperation). Or she opens a suitcase containing black paper airoplanes, whose airy lightness becomes like bones or teeth. Or she holds a swinging hypnotist’s pendulum in front of selected audience members, but seems more to induce palpitations in herself. Are the audience, themselves appearing at moments on the screens, just projections of her imagination? A ghostly negative image of The Book of Revelations seems to offer some and no answers.

I’ve jumbled up all the different sections here, partly because that’s how the piece has stayed in my mind. I was also struck, in discussions with Bardsley, about her method which involves a gathering of various elements, placing them in a visual paper score, and only in the last few days before a performance rehearsing in any conventional sense, to physically enact, choreograph and develop the show. So the actual performance is a place of working out how different elements will work, testing them, changing them as the show develops and in relationship to different audiences.

This explains the questing tone of the piece, and also the dialectical relation to the instructions and descriptions on the web site. For all the force and theatricality of Bardsley’s performance, I didn’t, for example, find it immersive and overwhelming. Or, rather, the elements of the show that overwhelmed - Bardsley’s extended vocal techniques, say, or the sense of the importance of the audience’s presence - were balanced with a Brechtian distance and alienation, that also juxtaposed archaic and contemporary, genders and voices. The carnival barker aspects of Bardsley’s persona, too, invites a reading based on more old fashioned notions of theatricality, showmanship, and circus.

This replacement of immersion with a more removed criticality was evident, too, in the working through of those invitations to the audience. Personally, the wearing of black primarily highlighted the act of preparing for and traveling to the show, not to mention the slightly more than usual black-clad crowd in the foyer beforehand. Whilst waiting I was handed a small plastic bag for my black object. I got to place it into an usher’s hat shortly after the performance began, and it appeared on a board in the foyer. As forms of participation, both seemed to widen and diversify the web of ideas, rather than enhance a sense of ritual immersion during the performance itself.

Finally, the performance offers us a fashion show of dis-ease as four figures climb up onto the stage to parade before us, evoking the four horseman of the apocalypse. One is pregnant, a breathing pipe between swollen belly and bandaged mouth; another a body sprouting black grapes. All, in various ways, wrapped, mutated, not so much clothed as fabric-cyborgs, flesh re-invented in the image of the preceding performance’s words and gestures.

When they hobble off, the performance ends and the plagues take their place in an installation of surreal and fetishistic furniture, where they stand or sit for us to stare at on our way out.

Bardsley is outside in the foyer, too, urging us to pledge £66.06 to buy the board to which all our black objects have been affixed. No one had, and I suspect no one ever does, but Bardsley was still audible as I headed down the Laban ramp, an incongruous element amongst Laban’s Herzog and de Meuron designed interiors, still offering a beginning after the end, or an end that was a beginning, or both, or none.

David Berridge writes and edits the blogzine More Milk Yvette: A Journal of the Broken Screen.

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