How long do you spend writing a review? And how soon after a show do you write it? Are you happy with this?
Of all the provocations Annie Rigby, artistic director of Unfolding Theatre, placed before a group of theatre-critics/writers at the Dialogue discussion at Northern Stage/St Stephen's last year, this was probably the one that pierced us as a collective most acutely. It's stayed with me, too: on the rare occasions when I have to review to deadline, on those self-conscious days when I fret that everything I write here is rendered irrelevant by the lapse of time. I heard Annie's voice echo in the ongoing discussion between Fevered Sleep and Pippa Bailey on twitter following Pippa's disappointed response to their show Above Me the Wide Blue Sky: “performer lacked vocal range to carry off text and no real weather”. I've found their conversation gripping: FS's initial response, “We've come to judge people for their capacity to see. So many can't”, struck me as curiously barbed; since then they've enacted a much more courtly waltz through questions of engagement and critique. Then, a couple of days ago, FS posited this:
I suspect it's guaranteed artists spend more time thinking about the work than critics of any kind spend thinking about critiques.
Well, yes, I suspect so too. But...
This past year, since Jake and I started Dialogue, I've become much more aware of makers documenting process online. That brilliant thing Tassos Stevens said that is probably being quoted by someone, somewhere in the world, every living minute of every day, that the work begins for you as an audience member when you start thinking about it, that moment is happening earlier and earlier for me. I've no idea when I'll get to see Hannah Nicklin's A Conversation with My Father, but I've already enjoyed reading her tweets and blog posts about making it with Alex Kelly. X I began thinking about Above Me months before I saw it, when Fevered Sleep started tweeting about its inspiration and creation.
27 Oct: A field full of pheasants. An open mine. A flock of gulls. A tractor. The sea. The light. A ploughed field. The train. The sky. #fsAboveMe
16 Nov: Home late from school pick up.Catching falling oak leaves in a foggy darkening playground. Adults & children pausing to join in. #fsAboveMe
13 Dec: A thick hoar frost> sheep, heads down> horses wearing overcoats> a stack of felled trees>a ploughed field, 2 seagulls, a buzzard #fsAboveMe
7 Jan: Super exciting first day of #fsAboveMe @youngvictheatre today. We're building an ecosystem in there... DH
10 Jan: Yesterday: ecologies of sound. Today: landscapes of light. Getting close to nature @youngvictheatre. Above Me The Wide Blue Sky #fsAboveMe
14 Jan: It's an installation. With a performance in. It's a performance. That unravels into an installation. It's time. Fast & slow. #fsAboveMe
17 Jan: Language evolving, human surfaces becoming landscapes, evolution, change, life, then disintegration, erosion, fading away. #fsAboveMe
6 Feb: Skylarks, grey mud, ash trees, cows, foxes without tails, rooks, clouds, fog, dogs, slugs, buttercups, cuckoos, rain. #fsAboveMe
And on it went. And when the audiences started coming in, along came the rhapsodic tweets praising the show's beauty. Of course I was excited about seeing it. I wanted to get there at least 30 minutes early so I could wander through the ecosystem they'd created, enjoying its sounds, its presence, its blissful dramatic contrast to the bleak relentless static of a winter that refused to shift. Somehow I persuaded myself that I would feel as transported as I do on the rare occasions I leave London to mooch by the coast or through craggy fields of grazing sheep. But I wasn't. That labyrinthine installation I'd imagined, offering the audience a journey through nature, comprised four video screens of shifting cloud patterns, skies blue and grey and dusky above a parched earth of white-grey slabs. If Fevered Sleep had wanted to communicate a sense of desolation at all we are losing through climate change, they did so, forcefully, the moment I walked in the room.
But I'm not sure the installation was meant to provoke that feeling. I think it was supposed to be a place of restful contemplation; just as the performance itself was, I think, intended to ring out like poetry. All those images FS spent weeks tweeting, here they were in the room – but instead of dancing through the air around us, each one was hammered out in a declamatory tone, hitting my ears with a thunk. This unmusical emphasis on the text made me feel curiously illiterate: many of the names of birds and plants were unfamiliar to me – it's not that I haven't heard of house-martins, but I wouldn't know one to see one. Could I see the things being described? Many of them, yes – but the sounds that accompanied them were all out of tune.
As the list of images droned on, I became fascinated by the people around me. The grey-haired man opposite, smiling with placid nostalgia. The young couple further up the row from him, fidgeting and furious with the agony of boredom. The woman with the strikingly long face struggling to keep her eyes open; the people on all sides who'd succumbed to sleep. Did none of us care about climate change and its slow erosion of the natural world? Have we become so attuned to grey concrete environments that birds and wild flowers and bright blue skies mean nothing to us now? Of course bloody not. But clearly I wasn't the only person for whom these things weren't being successfully evoked.
I've thought a lot about Above Me in the weeks since seeing it, continuing to puzzle over the choices FS made. I've wondered whether they shared any of it with people during the making process, and how many of those watched with a placid smile of contentment, how many fidgeted, how many slept. I've thought about the thing my husband said to me afterwards: how irritating it is to see anger at climate change presented as nostalgia for what comes across as a childhood of privilege (there is a long sequence describing the scenes witnessed by a child in the field apparently owned by its parents). I've thought about what it means to grow up in London, revelling in every glimpse of nature you get: snowfalls of blossom and the first sight of daffodils, the arrogant tenacity of buddleja as it protrudes from the walls of derelict buildings, trips to the park to roll in the grass, and always, always, the boundless joy of the skies, blue skies sliced by vapour trails, grey skies whose dense aggressive clouds bluster past windows with alarming speed, blushing sunsets and the jade glow of twilight, now and then the heady romance of a rainbow. And now I'm in Cyprus staying with my parents and closer to nature than I ever get at home: I've gazed at waves crashing against a deserted pebble-boulder beach through sunglasses misted by sea spray, and mountains shining green with thriving scrub and olive trees, and I've wondered how connected I actually feel to rolling English hills, whether it's something more dangerous and sublime I want from nature. At night I lie in bed listening to cockerels crowing to the stars, dogs barking on distant hills, swifts chattering excitedly in the dawn light. Every afternoon I rummage through my parents' unruly strawberry patch, filling a wicker basket with fruit that gleams like fresh blood. We've had sand storms while I've been here, blowing in from Africa, obscuring the mountains until the wind heaves it away. At home, the cold lingers. Climate change is destabilising our existence and threatening our future. But nothing in Above Me communicated with the desperation I feel about that, or the consolation I find in what remains.
For three days now, the songs of the swifts have soundtracked a swirl of thinking about capitalism and love stories prompted by a work-in-progress text Andy Field sent me of a piece he's slowly making. X Do I spend as much time thinking about these works as the people who make them? Of course not. But I love the invitation to try. And this, I think, is the saddest thing for me about feeling so disappointed by Above Me: it's a rare experience of the sharing of process backfiring, conjuring up images in my mind of a show that I'd kind of love to see, but will never exist.