Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: 'The Swarm' at Vault Festival, 8th February 2017

You've got to know what you're getting into with The Quorum's The Swarm. It's a shows that prides itself on "stretching the boundaries", casually describing itself thusly: "the piece explores the fluctuating magnetism between the individual and collective, which will be expressed physically, spatially and musically". 

The show achieves that lofty aim through bees (who possess "an unconscious wisdom" according to the programme) - dramatising the migration of the titular swarm from their old hive to a new one. Said bees are played by a ten woman choir, each of whom portrays an individual bee with names like 'Eeb No Yoo Hee' or 'Yoh Zoh Ovoo' (probably the equivalent of 'Jane' and 'Sarah' in bee language). Using a combination of tightly bound choral polyphonies, synth melodies and precise group choreography, the ten performers gradually guide the audience along the bee journey.

At least that's the theory. The Swarm is a pretty damn abstracted piece of theatre - to the point where if you went into it completely blind there's a chance you might not realise it's about bees at all. Even knowing the broad narrative leaves you a bit bewildered, devoting a decent splodge of concentration to trying to map what the performers are currently doing onto what I remember about bees from a documentary I watched a couple of years ago.

After twenty minutes I was straight up baffled. It was then I remembered the programme handed to me on the way in. Popped into my hand without comment I'd assumed it was merely a cast and crew list and folded it into my pocket. On retrieving it, I realised it was The Swarm's Rosetta Stone.

Not only does it explain exactly what's going on, but it's full of useful bee-facts like "before setting off to their new home, the bees must raise their body temperature to around 35°C" and "the bees form a cloud in the air of 8m long, 8m wide and 3m tall with bees about 27cm apart". Armed with a bit of context I began to appreciate the show a lot more, as well as picking up on the various political undercurrents.

To put it bluntly, if you're doing a show in 2017 about migrating organisms seeking a new home in an unfriendly world it's going to be about the ongoing refugee crisis whether you intend it or not. Mass migration is the hot button issue of the moment, the entire shape of Western politics warping towards right-wing nationalism in response (everything from Brexit to Trump can be diagnosed as a symptom of it). Thus, the title, 'The Swarm' applies not only to bees but also to refugees (refu-bees?), possibly a direct reference to David Cameron's dehumanising language when he described "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean". 

As far as metaphors go it's a decent one, though a bit squirm-inducing if you begin unpacking it. On the plus side, the bees in The Swarm are presented as a model of collective decision-making, each working for the benefit of their society rather than their own individual enrichment. Perhaps life would be improved if we emulated bees a little more and... I dunno, selfishly minded spiders a little less.

On the downside there's no getting away from the fact that The Swarm, in a roundabout way and with the best of intentions, is equating refugees with insects - dehumanising them in precisely the same way as David Cameron or Katie Hopkins' "Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches." Now I'm not saying this show has an atom of sympathy with Cameron and Hopkins et al - rather that the refugees as swarming insects metaphor is simply not a great look in any circumstances.

Maybe it's just best to consciously ignore this unfortunate train of thought and appreciate The Swarm as a pleasant and artsy production that's firmly about bees and nothing else. Taken on those terms it's a diverting enough way to spend an hour - a bit like sitting through an extended Björk music video. Entertaining enough if you've got the stomach for performance art/conceptual theatre but shorn of the glaringly obvious refugee metaphor it's all conceptual surface, no juicy political meat.

The Swarm certainly occupies a unique spot in the Vault Festival lineup, if you're getting sick of self-deprecating confessional solo shows this would be a decent palette cleanser. If you do end up going be sure to read the programme before it starts and try your best to overlook the somewhat unfortunate metaphorical implications


The Swarm is at Vault Festival until 12th February. Tickets here.

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