Review: Pin Drop, Observe the Sons of Ulster ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Review: Pin Drop, Observe the Sons of Ulster

We all know some variation or other of this feeling. You are alone, it is dark. You hear an almost inaudible sound, just on the edge of hearing, that you can't quite identify. Your body is shocked into a state of hyper-alertness: adrenaline floods through your bloodstream like a rush of cold water. Your ears strain into the busy silence. You hear it again. Or maybe you don't hear it, maybe it's just the sound of your heart beating in your ears.

This is the imaginative landscape of Tamara Saulwick's exemplary Pin Drop. Saulwick recorded interviews with a number of women in which they were asked to describe experiences in which they felt unsafe. In Pin Drop she weaves the stories together into a sound poem of recorded and performed voices. The stories - some unexpected and funny, some sinister, all candid - lead into some surprising places, far from the tabloid sensationalism that loves an eroticised female victim. Saulwick is not so much interested in violence itself, as in the experience of fear and threat.

A sense of terrifying estrangement is a staple of horror films, in which the familiar and domestic is transformed into the strange and threatening. It is also a commonplace of torture: part of torture's world-destruction entails ordinary objects - telephone books or broomsticks - becoming agents of pain or humiliation. But this ambiguity wouldn't hold its power if it were not part of the fabric of our urban lives: it is the cusp between solitude and our social selves, where anything might erupt over the lip of possibility. Realities of assault or robbery or rape feed this anxiety, but are not the whole of it: it is also a shadow in ourselves. Whether a threat is actual or not, our vulnerability is real: we realise in these moments how fragile we are, how mortal, and, perhaps, how dangerous we might be. As one woman says, it's in such moments that she realises that she is capable of murder.

This investigation becomes the occasion for an extremely powerful work of sensory theatre. One of the striking things about Pin Drop is how very real it seems: its power stems, at least in part, from a careful attention to the fragmentary and contradictory nature of experience. It makes you remember afresh how much fear shapes our lives: we put locks on doors, walk fast in night streets, never appear to be lost in foreign cities. It's a constant bluff designed to ward off the Bogeyman, who may or may not be there.

It is primarily driven by Peter Knight's remarkable sound design. Bluebottle's set and lighting are a platform for Knight's compositions - looped sounds and voices, pulsing electronics, taut silences. The sound envelops the audience, resonating in our breast bones but also making us acutely aware of the space around us: footsteps echo coldly as they move around the perimeter of the auditorium, voices and sounds erupt from different corners, or complete blackouts plunge us into the soundstream of our own blood.

The very simple elements employed so ingeniously here - a stage within a stage, smoke, darkness, light and sound - powerfully call up your own memories of fear or threat. The theatre becomes, quite nakedly, a kind of psychic echo chamber. There is an invitation in the very bareness of the gestures: the manipulations offered here are all completely exposed. One sequence involves Saulwick using a series of objects - a door lock, a knife, a water melon - to make a series of amplified noises, that are then treated with feedback. The objects are lit, the rest of the stage is dark. And even though we know exactly how those noises are made, it's surprising how they ratchet up a real sense of anxiety.

Sense memory is a potent thing, and by coolly and precisely accessing mnemonic triggers, Saulwick invokes a parallel theatre in your mind. Pin Drop reminded me of the particular senses of vulnerability that come from being alone in a house with small children, or from obscene anonymous phone calls late at night, or from home robberies and house invasions. It's clear that sexual threat, part of the texture of living as a woman, is a gendered experience, but even though this focuses on the stories of women, it doesn't exclude men: we all are frail in the house of our flesh.

What's less easily explained is the strange, breathless sense of liberation that comes with its aftertaste: perhaps it's as simple as the naming of a fear that is often evoked - we are surrounded by warnings about violence - but which is, in fact, seldom examined. It's remarkable theatre, executed with an exact brilliance that makes its sensual vividness all the more powerful. It's a short season, closing on Saturday, so hurry. This is not to be missed.

Meanwhile, over in Brunswick at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, stalwarts Hoy Polloy are performing Frank McGuinness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. This is a strange and terrible text written in the mid-80s, when the IRA and Ulster Loyalists were on the one hand secretly attempting to find a negotiated settlement to Protestant/Catholic warfare, while on the other pursuing an active program of terrorism and assassination. This background is implicit rather than explicit in this play, which observes the intractable violence of Northern Ireland through the lens of the First World War, in which Ulster Loyalists marched, like good Colonial boys, to their own deaths in the service of Empire.

McGuinness presents this political violence, present and past, as neurotic repetition. His anti-hero Kanneth Pyper (played by Ian Rooney as an old man, and by Dan Walls) is haunted by the ghosts of his lost comrades in the 36th Ulster Division, of which he is the only survivor. Pyper moves through the action as a ghost among ghosts, a man in whom possibility is destroyed. It is written with a desolate irony and anger: in its play-acting of empty signifiers - the Loyalist drum-beatings and commemorations of ancient wars - the play reveals these men as lost in a dance of death, each victims of their own misled impulses to heroism and glory.

None of this would count if the heroism wasn't, in its own way, convincing: and each of McGuinness's doomed characters (for even Pyper is dead, by his own admission "changed utterly" on that day in the Somme) has his claim to something admirable, a sense of courage or hope or capacity for love. The central story is, in fact, the love story between Pyper and David Craig (Nicholas Brien), showing what is destroyed by the black and white moral certainties that map the binaries of Protestant and Catholic, male and female, right and wrong, across a landscape of blood.

McGuinness's denunciation of this idea of heroicism - if not of his characters, who are victims of its deathly absolutes - is bitter and scathing. From early on, when a Loyalist soldier boasts of beating up and humiliating a Catholic child, to Anderson and McIllwaine's desperate conjurations of the Loyalist "Holy ground", the Ulster myth is presented as deathly and empty. It's difficult to get a sense of these very specific contexts and passions, those that decimated Ulster in the late 20th century, in a production in Brunswick in 2011, and perhaps unfair to ask. Director Steve Dawson softens these bitter questions to a vague sense of tragic heroism and historical regret, a colonial mythos not unlike that of the film Gallipoli. He presents past violence as it is caught in the amber of history, rather than as present violence that is traumatically re-enacted in an endless Purgatory. So the play feels a little sentimentalised.

The design is striking and effective - the action plays on a stage the shape of a cross, like the cruciform floorplan of a cathedral, with the audience watching from the various edges in traverse. It's a straight-up-and-down production, although there's a puzzlingly placed interval after 40 minutes, one third in, which made me wonder why it isn't played through. For the most part, however, Dawson and his hard-working cast make a good fist of a difficult play, and achieve a rough and admirable sense of honesty. I wish they had left the Irish accents out - often they wandered all over Ireland and the Antipodes. But this a play worth seeing, and which is seldom done. And it demonstrates how powerful writing can be in the theatre. Recommended.

Picture: Top: Tamara Saulwick in Pin Drop. Photo: Ponche Hawkes. Bottom: Nicholas Brien and Dan Walls in Observe the Sons of Ulster. Photo: Fred Kroh

Pin Drop, created and performed by Tamara Saulwick. Composition and sound design by Pater Knight. Movement by Michelle Heaven. Design and production by Bluebottle, Ben Cobham and Frog Peck. Malthouse Theatre @ Beckett Theatre until August 7.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
, by Frank McGuinness, directed and designed by Steven Dawson. With Ian Rooney, Dan Walls, Nicholas Brien, Angus Brown, Tosh Greenslade, David Passmore, Mathew Gelsumini, Kevin Dee and Karl Cottee. Hoy Polloy, Mechanic Institute Performing Arts Centre, until August 13.

1 comment:

Cameron Woodhead said...

Happily, Hoy Polloy's production of Observe the Sons of Ulster is selling out, and has been extended for until August 20. More info on their blog.