Thursday, July 7, 2016

'Cut' at the Vaults, 6th July 2016

 Being completely enveloped in darkness is liberating. I'm not talking about the mere dimness you find when trying to sleep: the orange glow of streetlights creeping around the edge of the blinds, the soft red LED of your charging phone or even the shimmer of the full moon.  No, I'm talking about pitch darkness. Inky, thick and absolute. Where you cannot see your hand in front of your face, when there is no difference between having your eyes open or closed, when the idea of up and down imperceptibly shifts. 

Then a strobe and a madwoman comes at you with a pair of scissors.

That's Cut, written and directed by Duncan Graham and performed by Hannah Norris. Part narrative and part performance art, it aims to disturb, shock and horrify its audience. Central to this is constant immersion in dark, and the subterranean gloom of the Waterloo Vaults makes for the perfect setting.

Cut is as much an exercise in striking stage and lighting design as it is in storytelling. Designer Becky-dee Trevenen and lighting designer Sam Hopkins have created a fascinatingly tactile space, wrapping us in shivering white plastic wrap, stretched taut to create a kind of membrane through which light can both gently diffuse and suddenly blind. 

The focal point is Hannah Norris' flight attendant, who becomes infatuated and intimidated by a passenger aboard her flight. She breathlessly describes the feel of his eyes over her body, the awkward little glances at each other as they try to gauge the other's feelings and her erotic desires rubbing up against her fake-smile plastic professionalism. 

Throughout, the woman shuffles her various personae like a deck of cards. Putting on makeup is communicated as putting a fake face over her 'real' face, then another face on top of that. Norris perfectly conveys the toothy, rictus grin of the flight attendant - designed to be reassuring and friendly, yet the eyes remaining dead and somewhat sharklike. The more we learn about her, the more we shiver.

 Things reach a suffocating peak in an intense sequence in which she recounts a childhood memory of torturing a dying fish to death. Removing it from the water, watching it writhe and gasp on a rock, reviving it and repeating. It's as neat and effective a description of sociopathy as I've seen; reminding of the weird intensity of the opening scene of Blade Runner: "The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping."

The culmination of this is a blurring of predator and prey. Things culminate, predictably, in extreme violence. Cut presents this in the abstract, using some shrunken and stretched pieces of plastic to impressively disturbing effect.
Cut is, charitably, probably not for everyone. With its focus on atmosphere and stage design rather than narrative and general willingness to get fucking weird, it's somewhat removed from its light entertainment siblings on the Wonderground programme. But hey - fucking weird - is totes up my street.

In promo material, the show describes itself as 'Lynchian': in my experience a word that's over-used to the point of parody. Any old sucker can flash a couple of lights, wave a freaky clown mask about and play some messed up music, but they generally fumble when it comes to the psychology that underpins why David Lynch's films are so effective. But, at its best, Cut reminded me of the nightmare sequences in Inland Empire, where Laura Dern ends up broken and twisted, descending into abstraction.

Cut consistently displays a fierce artistic and aesthetic depth that shimmers even in the pitch dark. Perhaps best illustrative is the multiple meanings of the title; first and most obvious the physical act of cutting, demonstrated more than once during the show; secondly the cinematic art of cutting between scenes, as simulated here by the frequent blackouts; and thirdly (according to the programme) "The Greek Fates, three women Clotho the 'spinner', Lachesis the 'measurer'; and Atropos ... the 'cutter of the thread of life'.

Some of that stuff is apparent during the production. Some you have explained to you afterwards. Some you conclude while lying in bed, thinking over what you've experienced. Ultimately Cut is a jigsaw where the pieces don't quite fit together. 
But that's very much my kinda night.

Cut is in the Vaults, under Waterloo until 31 July 2016. Tickets here.

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