Saturday, May 12, 2012

‘Eros and Psyche’ performed by Sally Pomme Clayton at the Swedenborg Society - 10th May 2012

When I received the email reminding me that tonight was the performance of 'Eros and Psyche' at the Swedenborg institute I was a little bemused.  I couldn't clearly remember ordering tickets, but it did sound like something I'd do, so I may as well head down there.  Frankly, even after visiting a few times I’m still a little bit unsure as to what exactly the Swedenborg Society is all about.  Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th Century Swedish scientist and mystic - but my only real source of information on him is what I’ve read on pamphlets at Swedenborg Hall and on Wikipedia- he comes across as a  sort of Swedish analogue to William Blake.  Still, while I’m somewhat shaky on what the Swedenborg Society’s guiding philosophy is, I’m glad they’re around.  The people working there are always helpful and friendly, and it the place attracts an interesting and surprisingly well dressed crowd.  Swedenborg Hall is one of those semi-secret places tucked away behind a shop.  The kind of place you occasionally happen upon when going to some obscure performance or talk.  

As I took my seat in the front row I still had no idea what kind of performance was in store for me.  Encouragingly, what was already on stage looked quite interesting, a range of odd percussion instruments and soft lighting, including what I think were candles in the bottom of paper bags.  The thought did cross my mind that one of these might go up in flames during the performance, but these Swedenborgians  seem like a sensible bunch so I figured they had this covered.  As I waited I read through the programme for the evening – the performance was going to be about 100 minutes, with an interval halfway through.  I always feel a slight sense of relief when I see there's an interval, if this turns out to be mind-numbingly dull I can easily slip into the night and be gone with no sharp glances and tuts directed at me.

I needn't have worried.  As the lights dimmed and the performance began it didn’t take me long to start enjoying myself.  Sally Pomme Clayton is a damn good orator and actress.  The performance began with her holding an olive oil fuelled lantern, desperately hoping that the tiny fluttering flame wouldn’t go out and spoil the introduction.  It was a nicely humanising touch to what I’d been afraid would be a bit of a cold, conceptual performance, and set the tone for what was to follow.  The performance essentially followed two narratives; the myth of Eros and Psyche, which is told within Plato’s ‘Symposium’ by Socrates and a skeleton outline of his philosophy and temperament.

The themes of the evening were the relationship between love and beauty, pretty big things to tackle.  The two aspects are personified in the characters of Eros and Psyche; Eros representing love (he is the God of Love after all) and Psyche representing beauty.  The basic summary of the story is that Psyche is so beautiful people start worshipping her rather than the Goddess Aphrodite, so she gets all narky and sends her son, Eros, off to torment her as a revenge.  (It always amuses me how petty the Greek gods are about stuff like this.)  Eros accidentally wounds himself with his own arrow, and surprise surprise falls in love with Psyche.  The rest of the story plays out the complications of a God falling in love with a mortal, and how both their families react to this inadvertent pairing.  I won't spoil the end, even though you've had about 2000 years to get around to it. The Socrates part of the performance recounted various aspects of his personal life, and his obstinacy which results in him being sentenced to death. 

The two narratives were woven together, the story of Eros and Psyche being told by Socrates' teacher, Diotime, Socrates telling it to the group of prominent Greeks at the Symposium, Plato telling Sally Pomme Clayon, and Sally Pomme Clayton telling us.  It is a nice chain of oral history and it’s comparatively rare (for me anyway), to be told a epic story by a single person taking on multiple roles with minimal stagecraft.  The use of different instruments to represent different voices, for example the voice of Eros was given an unearthly quality by playing a bow on the edge of a cymbal, neatly kept the audience on track, and the use of body language to signify the shifts in status and mood between characters was wonderful.  The only part which didn’t really work was a call and response with the audience which apparently demonstrated Socratic dialogue.  We were asked questions like “What comes first, love or beauty?” and then expected to answer as one.  What resulted was a kind of embarrassed murmur as people weren’t really sure what to say.  A particularly bizarre response was when we were asked “What happens when love achieves beauty?” and a woman behind me confidently answered “dissatisfaction”.  There’s probably a whole other performance summarised in that one word response. 

I was happy to see a warm and compelling look at such large concepts as love and beauty.  It is nice to see someone talking intelligently about these highfalutin’ concepts without shrouding them with a veil of irony or cynicism.  The next performance by Ms Clayton will be a children’s performance, and as long as Ms Clayton leaves out the violent testicular trauma I find it difficult to imagine how any child could fail to enjoy it.  The final performance of her tenancy as resident artist at the Swedenborg Society is in late December.  I’m looking forward to it.

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