Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review: 'Me And My Whale' at The Vaults, 22nd June 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

We are currently living through the Holocene extinction event - the sixth and most dramatic mass extinction that has ever taken place on Earth. Previous mass extinctions, most famously the massive comet or asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era, are thought of as quick cataclysmic events. Yet the extinction of the dinosaurs took place over a period of 10,000 years.

In the current extinction, humanity is the deadly asteroid smashing into the Earth - and we're doing a far more efficient job than some lousy space rock ever could. Overhunting, habitat destruction, disease, deforestation, global warming and pollution are decimating life on this planet at an ever-accelerating rate. One shocking piece of research claims that by 2050 there could be, by weight, more plastic than fish in the ocean.

All this brings us neatly to Xavier Velastin and Hannah Mook's Me And My Whale. This is an abstract, experimental piece of theatre that tells the story of a submarine captain falling in love with a lonely whale. While exploring the depths, she discovers the moving sound of his song and seeks to join him. 

On paper, that story sounds twee as hell, but the narrative quickly proves to be more a vehicle for a series of auditory and visual experiments. Staged in traverse, the performance space is bookended by two enormous sheets of gossamer-thin plastic sheeting. Between these lie a series of objects that are more art installation than set. Between them are three dangling bowls of liquid, an overhead projector with liquid on top beams rippling waves on to the walls and a big bowl in which Mook dips her face into and sings through the bubbles.

Velastin and Mook use the stage as a giant musical instrument, combining the pleasingly low-tech (the old style overhead projector gave me flashbacks to school assemblies) with what I'm assuming is live digital audio manipulation. I don't know precisely how they're producing this soundscape, but it appears that their interactions and movements through the set become translated into sound. This creates a unique hour-long piece of music that's different every time its performed.

This music is variously dreamy, meditative, funny and horrifying. The long stretches without dialogue give time to lose yourself in the soundscape, realising that the stage is a microcosm of the wider ocean: an ecosystem hemmed in with plastic and gradually chemically polluted as time goes on. This is complemented by long, low synthetic wails, which take on a morbid quality, as if we're hearing the dying gasps of the sea. We also get an idea of sonic pollution, with simulated and disorientating radar pings and drilling encroaching on a natural peace.

Horror aside, there's also a scene where a woman has passionate sex with a whale, so the show is never in danger of becoming truly miserablist. 

Me And My Whale isn't for everyone. You're going to have to come with this with a high tolerance for arty shit, combined with the ability trust that all this abstract noise and odd behaviour has a point. But I kinda loved it: it takes gumption to try and capture on stage the destruction of the oceans and the environmental calamity that mankind has wrought. Perhaps the only way to manage to communicate the sheer existential terror of what is happening right now is through arty shit.

Here's hoping Me And My Whale is performed more in future: we need more shows like this ready to push the boat (or submarine) out.

Further performances of Me And My Whale will be announced on their website.

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