and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Desire is as much to do with the taking away of the other's pain as with the mutual pursuit of pleasure... it is an alternative, shared use of physical energy and the special lucidity of the body to bestow, if only for a brief moment, an exemption...
– John Berger
Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.
The story concerns the reason why we love to fall in love. Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.
Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, rocks and sands,
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them.
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
For every thing that lives is Holy!
It’s tempting, particularly in the light of a certain inner exhaustion, to write this entire review by assembling quotations. I am simply incapable at present of articulating what these writers express with such sure delicacy (and so apologise in advance). These quotes map some of the emotional and intellectual territory that Sally Potter touches in her film Yes, the story of a passionate love affair between a Western woman and an Eastern man that encompasses philosophy, politics and poetry in a work of lucid profundity.
I should confess at the outset that I haven’t seen the film; I’ve only experienced Potter’s text. The script was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and shot as the US invaded Iraq, and is imbued with a sense of urgent affirmation. As Sally Potter says, “I started writing Yes in the days following the attacks of September 11 in New York City. I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against the United States. I asked myself the question: so what can a filmmaker do in such an atmosphere of hate and fear? What are the stories that need to be told?”
Last week I saw OpticNerve’s theatrical adaptation. It was an inspiring counterweight to some of the more depressing conversations I’ve had lately, a reminder that eros, with all its complexities and difficulties, is the force that reaches towards and affirms life. The film’s title is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses; it's the final word of Molly Bloom's monologue, which is surely one of the most passionate avowals of life’s imperfections and joys ever written.
It’s easy to see why Tanya Gerstle wanted to make it into a work of theatre. It bears a closer resemblance to Shakespeare than to any standard film script. Most obviously, it’s written in iambic pentameters (the closest formal poetic rhythm to conversational speech) and rhyming couplets; and it shares something of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical fluidity, shifting specific encounters between times and places to enact a story with a clear emotional imperative. Its concerns are at once political and metaphysical, passionate and intellectual. It even has its own take on Shakespeare’s “mechanicals”. If you knew no better, you’d swear this text was a play.
In the hands of OpticNerve, it’s certainly translated into pure theatre. There is no sense of an uncomfortable collision between the media of film and performance: from the opening moments, when you wander into the space in Fortyfive Downstairs, you are alerted to the dynamics of space and body and personal relationship that theatre demands. Where to sit wasn’t immediately obvious; the seats were at the far end, wrapped in the white fabric that is the chief element of the design, and for a few moments I thought we would be standing among the performers, who were already walking about the space, clad only in black underwear.
But we found our seats and then watched the pre-theatre unfold, wondering if the couples who stood talking in the middle of the space, glancing at the performers as they unobtrusively placed clothing and props about the stage, knew that they too were presently part of the performance. The lights signal the beginning of the theatre proper, and the performers stand before us in their underwear, naked and vulnerable to our gaze, and then slowly dress in the costumes of their roles. But the ambiguity signalled beforehand resonates through the show: as witnesses to this theatre, we are also embedded in its dilemmas and reflections, its desires and sadnesses.
At the centre of this piece is the body, its senses of transitoriness and permanence. It begins with a monologue from the Cleaner (Ella Watson-Russell), a chorus/witness figure who also embodies the unseen and ignored third world labour force that keeps the west going. Reflecting on the nature of dirt, she says, “everything you do or say is there, forever. It leaves evidence.” Later, she tells us: “we never disappear, / Despite it being what we all most fear…Every single creature feeds another…When we expire perhaps we change, at most, / But never vanish…”
This idea of permanence is poised finely against the mortality of love, the emotional emptiness that haunts She (Meredith Penman) and her Husband (Gary Abrahams) as their marriage disintegrates. When She meets He (Grant Cartwright), a Lebanese refugee working as a kitchen hand, erotic love becomes the means to a larger, spiritual vision that at once divides and unites the lovers.
Their relationship becomes the nexus for a series of meditations on science, religion, class, consumerism, racism, colonialism, and the vexed question of self and other. But these ideas are revealed through poetic action rather than explained for us. The actors’ bodies, articulating the exquisitely choreographed movement, become the means of precise emotional expression: they are erotic, bereaved, violent, forlorn, ecstatic.
From the beginning, you feel confident that you are in the hands of theatre makers who know what they’re doing, who can step unerringly between the specific realities of feelings and the abstraction of ideas. The design subtly emphasises the poetic restraint of the text, with a rigorous palette of black and white that highlights the passions of the body, and is beautifully lit. And the performances are all first class, physically disciplined and marked by an intense emotional honesty. It’s the kind of theatre that devours your whole attention without your quite noticing. And at the end you are released, at once exhausted and nourished, into the complexities of your own life.
Yes, by Sally Potter, directed by Tanya Gerstle. Lighting design by Richard Whitehouse, stage management by Canada White. Ensemble/co-creators: Grant Cartwright, Ella Watson-Russell, Emmaline Carroll, Anne-Louise Sarks. With Gary Abrahams, Grant Cartwright, Kane Felsinger, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter, Ella Watson-Russell and Anne-Louise Sarks. OpticNerve Performance Group @ Fortyfive Downstairs. Closed June 7.