Artistic Director &Movement: Rosewith Gerlitz
Artistic Director &Composer: Heloise Tunstall-Behrens
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Bees are among the hardest working creatures in the animal kingdom and spend much of their lives supporting and protecting their Queen in the dark. So, it is appropriate that darkness is where theatre company The Quorum begins and ends their examination of a bee colony looking for a new home. Combining music, mime and choreographed movement with a distinctly tribal feel, The Swarm is a fairly unique, if not always entirely clear, piece of conceptual theatre.
The former Queen’s power is fading and her daughters vie for her place, splitting the hive. A swarm is created from the elder bees who search the local countryside and city for a new home, which they must all agree upon. As they take possession, the swarm commune with nature to create a spiritual connection to their new hive and encourage the remainder of their group to join them.
Heloise Tunstall-Behrens’ varied musical composition mixes 80s synthesised sounds that give the early section a distinctly sci-fi feel, with African polyphonic singing from the Congo and Cameroon to create a curious mix of dynamic sections of activity and haunting, even sinister, periods of chanting as the bees act out a serious of rituals in the search for and acquisition of their new home.
There are lots of brave and bold choices in The Swarm, which is part described, that make it simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It is by no means a straightforward or strictly narrative creation, but a series of scenes interpreted through movement and music that take the bees from the original division of their hive through the ‘cluster’ where they apparently hang together from a lamppost to protect the Queen, to the ‘Buzz run’ where they raise their body temperature to attract the rest of their group.
It’s all incredibly well-researched and thought-through, except the audience needs to read the detailed programme at regular intervals throughout to really have any idea what is happening at any one time. Once you do, it’s possible to see how innovatively the company have interpreted each of these sections, but you do miss a lot of the action by trying to read at the same time. And sadly plenty of audience members looked fairly bemused on press night before it became clear that the answers were in their hands.
Aside from this difficulty, the voices of the performers – Tunstall-Behrens, Sarah Parkes, Rosa Slade, Luisa Gerstein, Nouria Bah, Liv Stones, Tanya Auclair, Natalie Pela and Sarah Anderson – echo beautifully around the cavernous Vault space, creating some beautiful harmonies as the various chants build to a climax. Roswitha Gerlitz’s movement direction is not always obvious but gives the sense of industrious workers who may be doing different things but with a common purpose.
While some of the early sections feel overlong, the piece settles into a nice rhythm in the second half as the bee’s activities become clearer, while Auclair’s interesting soundscape provides a useful contrast to the music, taking the bees from parks with children playing, to busy city roads filled with traffic and industrial clamour. And although no costume designer is credited the decision to avoid black and yellow for simple burgundy dresses and gold-painted faces adds to the sense of uniformity.
Although a little more signposting throughout would help, or a chance to read the programme in advance which may help the audience catch on a little quicker, The Swarm is unlike anything else and makes a distinctive addition to the Vault Festival. Whether this is solely about bees is entirely up to you, but our current political climate suggests an additional layer of interpretation about displaced people successfully making new homes far from where they started. Maybe bees have a thing or two to teach us after all.
Runs until 12 February 2017 | Image: Contributed