Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: 'Vessel' at Battersea Arts Centre, 8th November 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Picture this: I'm sat in the front row of a theatre with four women sat on chairs in front of me. The set is a gigantic piece of curved plastic with no horizon. To an ambient electronica soundtrack, the women simultaneously recite a poem at various speeds and tones, resulting in an overlapping chorus that sounded like "we are the shattering the shimmering this is the shimmering we are the shattered this is the shattering shimmering this is a shattering place..." and so on. This is Sue MacLaine's vessel - and it's hypnotic. 

I felt like I was coming up on psychedelics, especially as sitting in the front row seemed to encourage the performers to periodically lock eyes with me - a lazer gaze that was in danger of burning right through my skull. I kinda wobbled on my seat and felt a bit light-headed. t was cool - but what the hell does it mean?

Well, the show bills itself as being about the "radiance of survival", which sounds nice but doesn't exactly clarify things. Clearing things up a bit is that the performance is bookended with a description of the medieval practice of the Anchoress, in which a woman would be walled up inside a church where she would remain for the rest of her life. She'd be fed through holes in the wall, dispense spiritual and personal advice, contemplate the nature of God and, in a pretty metal twist, dig her own grave. Cool.

MacLaine stages the contemporary interpretation of this, with the four performers (Tess Agus, Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu and Karlina Grace Paseda). They present a spectrum of modern femininity, are walled off from one another (by circles drawn on the stage) and deliver a litany for today. This adds up to a chaotic catalogue of modern life, an avalanche of nouns and verbs about finance, sex, politics, tech and a tonne of other stuff.

It's an almost unbearable avalanche of information, neatly simulating 'worry-fatigue'. There is so much shit going on in the world right now that it's difficult to keep track: you expend your energies campaigning for the NHS just as you worry at the USA's rapid slide to white nationalism while climate change keeps you up at night. Then you watch a TV show about plastic pollution in the oceans - which you'd forgotten about as it had been swallowed up the constant doom-laden cavalcade of bad news. And shit! I should really do more about fixed odds betting terminals...

It's too much for one person to handle - you would go nuts if you tried. vessel suggests an alternative, or as writer/director Sue MacLaine puts it:  “I would argue that choosing to withdraw and being in silence is a political act. Trying to serve from an internalised place is as valuable as external shouting."

A 'withdrawal' from the depressing realities of life is pretty seductive. After all, what can one person do in the face of a burning, miserable hellworld? Why not just, y'know, pretend that it isn't happening and take some me-time?

But it is awfully convenient to say that doing nothing is a political act and that internalised protest is "as valuable" as doing literally anything to kick back against a culture gone rotten. It leaves the thrust of the show as an off-putting cry for more solipsism in the midst of a planet being ruined by those exact impulses. To put it bluntly: if you conclude that your political action is withdrawal and silence then you are a coward. 

Thing is, vessel obviously doesn't agree with that because it's a piece of theatre being loudly performed in public - the opposite of withdrawal and silence. It results in a weirdly conceived show that's a bit like a dog endlessly chasing its own tail. 

Perhaps the best indication of its confused priorities is the way the show romanticises the situation of an Anchoress. vessel envisages them as venerated symbols of femininity in a community, their cell functioning as a symbolic womb from which a true understanding of reality can spring from within their isolation. The reality was a medieval peasant with mental problems bricked into a wall - not the best model with which to approach the modern world!

vessel is a fine piece of writing, an aesthetic marvel and a great performance - but it's a call to inactivity. And that's the last thing we need right now.

vessel is at the Battersea Arts Centre until 24 November. Tickets here.

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