Thursday, November 16, 2017

Voila Day 2 - Crossing the Line (UK)

Day 2 took me to the Cockpit Theatre in North London, historically the venue for the Voila Festival in its previous French-focused manifestations. This year's edition has expanded the number of venues from 1 to 3, incorporating both Applecart Arts in  Stratford, and Etcetera Theatre in Camden. The three venues are widespread - with Etcetera and the Cockpit sharing a little corner of North London, and Applecart Arts being something of an outlier in the far east. It's a situation the festival has used to its advantage, encouraging a cross-fertilisation of culture among different areas of London.

The evening ended with esprit de corps' accomplished Hyperion, based on the text from German poet Hölderlin. Coming off the back of a season at Edinburgh, I am amazed to find no significant critical writing about the work so far (at least, not that google provides). Unfortunately I won't be the first - as I missed the beginning of the performance (gotta listen out for those bells...). Nevertheless - Hyperion clownifies Hölderlin's novel about solitude, borrowing selectively from the text to generate a kind of comptemporary ode to humanity's isolation. It's a perfectly executed performance, deserves more attention than I can give it here. Suffice to say - it's a welcome addition to the festival program, and indeed would be to many others.

Prior to that, UK-based duo Przymierska Morgan (Margot Przymierska and Nicholas Morgan) present an ensemble performance of Crossing the Line, in its second performance after a development at Rich Mix. The show takes the form of a series of fast-moving vignettes, stolen from TV and film, arranged around the theme of ‘borders’. The ensemble change accents, personas, and roles in rapid-fire succession throughout, with locations and situations transforming from a meeting between politicians of GDR Germany and the USSR to a mistaken border crossing from Mexico into Texas. The situations twist and turn, plummeting the audience into the daring night-time escape across the Berlin wall, to a karaoke performance of Elton John’s Nikita, all the time rotating around the central object for examination.

Image credit: unknown

It’s an interesting and weird object of study. Borders occupy a troubled place in human history, representing initially a way for governance to be defined, and lately an oppressive tool for the nation state to assert its dominance over people. There are many times when their existence is vague, or a purely arbitrary ideological tool. Neoliberalism would have us live in border-free societies, in the meantime, creating conditions in which the border ironically reinforces itself.

Thankfully, Crossing the Line stays largely away from contemporary clichés of borders – from the US President’s proposed wall. Rather, the show begins with the ensemble dividing up the space via chalk lines on the ground (symbolic of arbitrary divisions of space, and perhaps also the fragmented nature of the piece itself), and proceeding into the presentation of various ‘airport-style’ situations, backed by an ever-present anxious soundtrack. From there, the dramaturgy moves to a woman trying to cross a river, and a moving representation of drowning in a wheelchair.

About halfway through the show, the stage is suddenly plunged into darkness. At this point, I was worried about a seeming lack of dramaturgical through-line – as though the arrangement of the vignettes had little or no logic. At this point, the chaotic nature of the opening is explained somewhat, with a character pronouncing “In the beginning, there was chaos. In the beginning, there was chaos. And then there was light” in a statement that applies to both the dramaturgy itself and to the understanding of borders today. At this point, the piece begins to hit its stride – we are offered a series of vignettes that take us into the drama of night-time border crossings, our characters knowing that at any time they might be shot. The dramatic climax of this theme comes in a simple moment, of a family crossing a river into Vietnam, pleading with a border guard not to shoot them, finally realising they have reached Vietnamese territory.

It’s interesting to examine Crossing the Line as a project of assemblage – like a series of YouTube clips assembled in a particular order. Putting aside obvious copyright concerns, the direction shares an interest in the similarities and differences of representations of borders, finding mirrors across cultures, and building themes through their juxtaposition. It’s not an entirely unsuccessful approach, although the audience probably feels a bit jerked around by the constant jumps of time and space. At its worst, this is like a constant stream of beginnings, middles and ends – the ensemble forced to create a situation using all of their tools, only to quickly have to throw it away for something else, never to return. To everyone’s credit, the commitment is there to make this work, although there are certainly limitations to the approach (some vignettes, for example, totally passed me by without understand where we were or what is going on). At its best, Crossing the Line creates some fine moments that neatly layer on top of one another, and generate contemplation of the weirdness of borders as an idea. When the stars align, it crystallises something quite profound.

Predictably, perhaps, things shift to the contemporary by the end, and the audience is asked to consider the notion of borders today. There is no doubting the importance of that question, as white nationalism makes a more visible comeback across Europe. Shows like Crossing the Line implicate the audience in the process of border creation, questioning their complicity in the destruction of lives that is the fundamental effect of the military employment of borders, and their arbitrary employment by the nation state.