[Originally written for Exeunt]
She unbuttons her coat and drapes herself over the stool. She lies there in the darkness belly-up and head slung back like she’s waiting to be sacrificed and as she does so a row of simple towers appears from the folds of her white cotton dress, their windows glowing streetlight-amber. The cityscape follows the inverted curvature of her spine; neat cotton apartment blocks on a gently sloping hill. She is now almost completely invisible, a subterranean shape beneath the city that is growing out of her. But in the last few moments before she stands up, the silhouette of her hand gently runs its fingers across the towers, the tenderness of her touch suggesting that she still feels them like they are part of her.
It begins with two people on stage. There are always two people on stage. I think about how many companies I know are made up of two people. Duos. Double acts of a sort. I think about how rare it is to see a stage crowded with bodies any more. I can remember a long conversation with my friend Harun in which we suggested that this was perhaps an inevitable function of socio-economic forces outwith the art world. Without the ability to feasibly live on the dole that once perhaps existed, the members of a company are compelled to find jobs to even be able to survive, these jobs will frequently involve long hours and will often be in different cities, which makes thinking together and staying together increasingly difficult. Much easier as a duo, especially if you’re a couple. One bedroom. One car. Planning over dinner or breakfast. A small fee split between two rather than six goes much further. Or maybe we just find it harder to get on with each other these days.
She’s telling a story about a city of three tall towers. Except that she’s not telling the story, we’re listening on headphones to her voice as she describes this city. We’re supposed to have our eyes shut but I’m watching and as I watch I notice her reveal a crude model of a city made from stacks of glued-together sugar cubes. As she places the model down on top of the projector one of the fragile towers snaps off in her hand. Everyone’s eyes are still shut. Carefully, she holds the tower between two fingers whilst she lights the model with a torch. In the headphones, her voice tells us to open our eyes. We watch as the shadow of the towers moves slowly across the back wall, her hand discretely holding the city together.
There is an enormous difference between having two people on stage and having three people on stage. In the 1960s, Robert Morris suggested that a simple object such as a white cube contains so few internal relationships that the viewer cannot help but consider the relationships that exist beyond that object, between the object and the room and the people in the room. We are not thinking about the relationship between this tree and that hay cart, or this person and that person, we are thinking about us, standing in this white room looking at this small white cube.
When there are just two people on stage, the complications that might exist between three or four or five people you are reduced to the single relationship that exists between one person and the other. This is the basis for a lot of the best theatre and a lot of the best comedy; Caryl Churchill’s A Number perhaps or Laurel and Hardy. But the singularity of this relationship also offers the possibility that, like Morris’ cubes, without any other complicating factors our own role as watchers might become a more visible and fluid part of the story. And I think that for some of the most interesting duos making work at the moment this is explicitly the case. Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall, for example, is perhaps best described as a delicate three-way ballet between the two performers and the audience, an abstract drama in which loyalties are made, tested and betrayed on all sides.
She stands in the middle of the space and I know it is nearly the end of the show because I’ve seen it twice before already. I am waiting for my favourite part of the show. As music plays in the darkened room and a series of images are projected of Amsterdam, New York, Athens, the shutters covering the windows along the back wall that we hadn’t even noticed where there are raised from the outside and the amber light of the street bleeds into the room. We can see quiet side street, the dark windows, the plants, the graffiti on the wall. She walks to the back of the room, opens a pair of glass doors and seems to sink into the real world like a warm bath or a comfortable chair. She looks at the man that opened the doors, her assistant, her faithful horse, and they walk off together into the city. This is my favourite part of the show.
When I was talking to Harun about the pervasiveness of the duo in what, for want of a better phrase, we might call the world of Live Art, the company we couldn’t help but compare all these contemporary duos to was Forced Entertainment. They might be described, probably against their will, as the archetypal performance collective.
Quizoola however, only ever features of two of them at any one time. Quizoola is show of questions. In a circle traced out by a chain of illuminated lightbulbs, two performers sit in everyday clothes and basic white clown face. One holds a rough bundle of A4 pages from which they appear to ask an endless series of questions, each answered by the other performer; honestly, fantastically, humorously, as best they can. After a while, they switch roles, and every two hours or so, one of the two performers is replaced by a third performer. The show always lasts a minimum of six hours and has been presented for as long as a whole day.
Two is very important in Quizoola. This is a game of question and answer. Interlocutor and responder. There is no explicit ‘role’ for the audience, we are not asked to do anything and calling out answers is not encouraged. Yet through the seamless, seamless, hypnotising shifts in the tone and content of the questions and the consequent transformations of the relationship between the two performers, we find our own place in the performance is also constantly changing.
We are observers of a simple theatrical game
Intruders at a confessional
Witnesses to an interrogation
Helpless bystanders to a gruelling quiz
The audience of a crass and meaningless chat show
and finally after six hours
we are now participants sharing in a collective durational ordeal
We are exhausted
Caught between these innumerable places
Between this polyphony of meanings
Our ability to come and go as we please only emphasises the redundancy of our conventional expectations of spectatorship. We sit, them and us, re-imagining again and again where we are and what the relationship between the three of us might be. Without us really moving, worlds appear and disappear as easily as a stage hand dropping painted backgrounds in and out of a proscenium arch.
I’m walking home from the show through unfamiliar streets. The streets are almost empty. Shops are shut up not because it is now night but because they are no longer ever open. Every imaginable surface is covered in graffiti – houses, monuments, government buildings, cafes, bars, ruins. I wonder if this is what it’s always been like and if it’s just one of those things that no one thinks to tell you about this city, like the fact that in Berlin everyone has cheese for breakfast or that Vancouver is absolutely full of junkies. I’m told by my friend Gabriella that until recently it wasn’t like this. That all this scribbling is one consequence of the financial crisis. Youth unemployment is currently at 57% and for won’t of anything else to do young people spend their time writing themselves on to the city, like they’re trying to remind it that they still exist.
The closest literary parallel I can think of to the slippery quantum leaps of Quizoola is the writing of Italo Calvinho, and in particular If on a winter’s night a traveller. The book exists as a seemingly endless sequence of literary beginnings, each ending abruptly at the conclusion of a chapter or paragraph. Interspersed between each of these books-within-a-book are fragments of a story that grows harder to follow the more closely it seems to mirror the plots of the novels that the characters are trying and failing to complete. As this might suggest the book is undoubtedly disorienting but exhilaratingly so, and out of these frequent and exhausting changes of perspective something vague but definite begins to emerge. A shape in the fog. A palimpsestual outline. And it reminds me of a line from a show I saw once that has been tattooed somewhere in my memory ever since.
This is more the expression of a longing than an account of what is actually happening.
I get home and I want to write something. I want to write something about the show I have just seen three nights running. I saw it three times in part because I felt a responsibility to, having co-curated the festival the show was at, partly because otherwise I was alone in a foreign city that I didn’t know and being a fairly useless traveller I had no idea what to do with myself otherwise, and party because I wasn’t tired of it yet and I wanted to be absorbed again by its strangeness. I saw it three nights running and now I want to write something about it. I have the outline of an idea, a shape in the fog, but I’ve no idea where to start. I write three different sentences and delete each one in turn. And then I just write my memory of a woman lying on her back on a bar stool with a city growing out of her stomach.
Although Still Night is nominally based on Calvinho’s Invisible Cities it seems also to owe a debt to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Like Quizoola it is a piece created and performed by two people, Gemma Brockis and Silvia Mercuriali. The show begins as a clumsy, thrown-together lecture on the city the show is being performed in, apologetically presented by a woman speaking in a mongrel language made of words borrowed from everywhere. We don’t quite know what to think of this. We hope, perhaps, that this isn’t the whole show.
And then, just as we are growing accustomed to it, just as she begins to perhaps be making more sense, this reality falls apart and again we have no idea where we are. We briefly seem to be in an undercity, or a mirror city, then we are watching the stories of other cities we’ve never heard of, we are listening on headphones to a voice telling us we are Kubla Khan and the cool evening breeze is on our faces, we are watching a man with a horse’s head rolling dice and eating sugar cubes, we are in a darkened room that could be anywhere, we are watching a woman lying on a bar stool with a city growing out of her stomach. And when eventually the whole back wall opens up to reveal the soft amber glow of the real city outside, it’s shuttered windows and its graffiti, this feels like no comfort at all. After fifty minutes of reflections and refractions, of real and implausible stories, this just feels like another illusion show (or perhaps a city) that is full of them.
I’m on a plane back to London and I’m trying to finish this before the fasten seat belt sign comes back on. As I write the song Japan by Cocorosie comes on and I’m trying to write but actually I’m just listening. They sing, everybody wants to go to Japan. Everybody wants to go Californ-i-aye. Everybody wants to go to Jamaica. Everybody wants to go Iraq. Everybody wants to go to Japan. Everybody just hold hands. And this is followed by a kind of operatic interlude that I can’t say I’m too keen on, flourished like an attention-seeking waistcoat or a face tattoo, but just when I think I’ve really had enough the melody sweetly floats back in again and we are once more full of longing for all these cities that we might go to. Or maybe we are just full of longing for all cities. For the city.
Still Night succeeds in recreating Invisible Cities by totally disdaining to recreate it. Where Calvinho employs literature’s immersive pull to invite us to dream its many cities into existence, Still Night spins us through a medley of possible meanings of what it might mean to be an audience. In each articulation we are a cast as a different kind of witness to a heartfelt perhaps almost desperate attempt to describe to us the city. Each time we are invited to start imagining and each time the teller and the city slip away again before they are completed. What we are left with are fragments of ideas and half-finished cities, ruins in reverse. Cities written on top of other cities. An accumulation of stories and histories and perspectives. So many cities piled on top of each that you can’t help but imagine that one day the physical buildings will no longer be enough to contain them.
More information on Still Night can be found here.