Writers and Directors: Abigail Browde and Michael SilverstoneReviewer: Becca Savory Fuller
A woman walks out onto a dark, bare stage. The theatre is stripped back to the black walls, vast and cavernous behind her. She finds her place, turns and looks out into the darkened auditorium. Above her, a suspended cyclorama gradually illuminates the stage. She watches us, watching her. For a moment, anything could happen.
What is ‘liveness’ in performance? What happens when one group of people watches another? These are questions that preoccupy New York theatre company 600 Highwaymen (Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone), who mark their UK Debut with this presentation of The Record for In Between Time Festival.
The Record is an ambitious performance which places 45 Bristolians at the heart of its work. Each of the performers has not met or stood on stage together prior to the event. Each rehearses individually with the company so that the final composition is only achieved on the opening night. The work, first developed in New York in 2013, emphasises their relationship as strangers to one another. It asks us to revel in their human, live, physical presence. It describes the piece as ‘vivid human assembly on an epic scale’.
The Record sets in motion a dance-like kaleidoscope of movement sequences. Performed to live music by Brandon Wolcott and cellist Emil Abramyan, the performers flow, meet, stop, start and gaze back at us – punctuating their movements with gestures evoking the dynamic bodies of ancient Greek painted pots. The effect is hypnotic and utterly gripping.
But the production also has dark undertones. Most performers diligently maintain their cool, neutral gaze, moving through their motions like automatons. Each is fixed on his or her own path. Each is concentrating hard on performing their specific actions correctly. There are echoes of Craig’s über-marionette. If the production places humanity on stage, it is a vision of humanity without individual agency. It is a vision in which the assembly seems utterly controlled by a higher authority – the invisible artist.
We find our focus zooming in on the tiny glimpses of their individuality: the young performer who stifles a gasp on entering the stage for the first time. The actor who seems to be holding back tears. The small boy trying hard to not crack a smile; the one who looks like she’s enjoying herself. We yearn for levity, for playfulness, for the performers to be allowed to acknowledge their own human responses to the experience, and to each other.
Perhaps this will come as the performers overcome the pressures of opening night. The Record leads its performers to a state of vulnerable aliveness on stage that is beautiful to witness. But the work also raises some uncomfortable questions about power, authority and control for artists who claim to collaborate with communities.
Runs until 11 February 2016 | Image: Maria Baranova