29th March 2019
It was to have happened on the cusp of a very significant day. Living on an island, however, means we all know about delayed departures. Stewart Laing from National Theatre of Scotland was certainly prepared for anything and had asked all the 6 groups of commissioned artists to explore the idea of uncertainty as well as feelings about and relationships with Europe. I had just booked flights and accommodation for a week in Berlin next month, so I was feeling quite the European, and as the capacity audience filled three enormous tables the buzz was helped by drinks vouchers and 99 Red Balloons and similar on the soundtrack. Whatever the current Brexit situation, the show would be a truly historic cultural event, a chance to articulate something through art which could resonate and speak beyond the current fog. I, for one, was looking for some new perspectives.
With Gary McNair as MC, Tam Dean Burn was up first with Aquaculture Flagshipwreck, featuring music from fabulous mermaid and harpist, Rachel Newton. Up and down we were taken through a routine of standing and sitting to words from a Singing Kettle song after scrunching up pages from the FT to throw at the Mythical Wild Salmon dangling from the roof. Next a rather marvellous Scottish (Mexican) wave. Some vague jokes got vague laughs, but we rather enjoyed ourselves amid learning and repeating unpalatable information about salmon farming. Soon it was time for Tam Dean Burn to finish with a quote from Tom Leonard’s Flag, To the infant the sucking blanket/ To the adult the flag. /Salute.
We were underway and with a quick up the revolution Tam was off. But you don’t forget quotes like that, nor indeed invocations to revolution, however solitary. The audience were then split, half going upstairs to watch the dance performance whilst the rest saw moving through shadows, a film by Nima Sène and Daniel Hughes. I see I scribbled down a bit of a hotch potch just before the penny dropped that this was the beautiful point. Soundtrack of traffic, scenes within a Nigerian shop in Poland gave a warmth and reality to Ifi Ude’s story of the rich cultural synthesis which goes on when people travel and stay to create a new home. This should resonate with all of us time, if not cultural, travellers, living through change. And it did, especially as the performance slipped from film to live singing from Ifi herself. Having just flown in from Poland that afternoon, her singing was gorgeous and generous, both literally and metaphorically like a lamp in the dark. She sang a melancholy song from the Warsaw uprising and after this, who would not want to follow her to hear more Polish music, and find out more about the Haitian connection with Poland and the worship of the Black Madonna/Erzulie Dantor . Two stand-out quotes from this piece were, firstly from the film, It’s not home I miss, but belonging to the place, and secondly from the song Cię jutro Warszawo ma!/ Warsaw has tomorrow, one of the many calls to face the future which came throughout the evening, though one born of much more physically desperate times than these.
Some might say an alternative strategy could be to continue to face backwards and concentrate on controlling our borders. Leonie Rae Gasson’s piece, Death Becomes Us began with the mass distribution and instruction as to how to use headphones and blindfolds. Suitably sorted we heard urgently whispering voices, including Theresa May’s, telling us to take back control. What are the rules? The rules of origin, repeated again and again was our unsettling reminder of the ultimate foolishness of fixing all concepts of home in the past and for valuing backward facing visions above those facing forwards. Another gorgeous musical commentary followed orders to remove blindfolds and headphones with stunning singing and performance from Beldina Odenyo Onassis and a community chorus of women and non-binary European migrants who owned the resonant space they created and completely won over the audience.
By this stage (well OK, a lot was retrospective) I felt that important things had been said, and emotionally we had moved forward, but there was still a vagueness and a lack of a feeling of relevance. Two people changed all that, Louise Ahl and Ruarì O’Donnabhàin with their dance piece (created by Ruari and Nic Green) d’tùs maith is leath na h’oibre/ A good start is half the work. Their performance together was such a good example of the power of art to embody complex situations simply and powerfully. They were two dancers with a chair each which had been sawn in two but which they still had to use to sit on, balancing it with difficulty, changing position on it with tortuous care and manoeuvring with an awkwardness that was completely mesmerising. It seemed entirely fitting, and here was the proof that Dear Europe really was speaking to our times.
In contrast Cadaver Police in Quest of Aquatraz Exit was the entertaining, predominantly yellow, tee-shirt flinging, dystopian sci-fi creation of Alan McKendrick, and it rather passed me by, but was undoubtedly done with great panache and was well received. The band and actors were great, I just didn’t engage with the substance of the piece much though I did despite myself, really enjoy it.
So it was left to Second Citizen from Angus Farquhar (which he rhymed with darker, NB Garry McNair) to end the evening. The first half of his piece was as lucid, straightforward and ever so slightly dull as the Cadaver Police had been out there, elusive and exciting. Angus recounted his family’s European story, how WW1 had devastated many of its lives and ended several. He told us how he himself survived violent experiences of bullying and ostricisation, how, with the help and support of like minded people, he set off travelling, making music of great energy and edge at the same time. And it was his music that he left with the audience who could only wish that such inspirational energy could be directed where it is needed.
But one thing at a time. It had been a unique and memorable evening and it was late when the house lights came up and the audience went out into the dark to find their ways home.
Review: Catherine Eunson
Photography: Drew Farrell