Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bristol Biennial Review: We Used To Wait

Last night, after fifty minutes of awkwardness, hand-holding and some dancing, I walked home feeling fairly elated. I had been to see We Used to Wait, a play about how developing technologies effect human interaction by Massive Owl.

The performance took place at The Island, as part of the Bristol Biennial Festival, which ends today. We arrived before the show was to begin, and got our hands scrawled on in a well-lit waiting room where dozens of people tapped and swiped at their phones. I had a terrible feeling that this was where the performance was going to be.

I'd met Danny the week before (he knows my housemate) and we'd talked about the show. He'd said that the audience didn't always know when it had begun, as it had a subtle start, and so my theory that this was in fact the show was not so wild. Luckily, somebody came to usher us out of the waiting room. The phone-swipers, blinking, roused themselves from feeling bad about their social lives or having not caught up with Gran in such a long time or whatever, and we filed into another room.

The next room was more the kind of thing an (unenlightened theatre) person would expect to see a show in. Big-ish, rectangle, seats set around the edges. It was a bit bright for a person who blushes easily and is scared of interaction, who finds themself at a participatory theatre event, but I guess that if we are going to have a moment of unadulterated human connection we needed to see each other. And we were, or so Massive Owl hoped.

We faced each other shiftily, knowing that soon we would be snogging or holding hands or tying blindfolds onto one another. What we didn't know was when, or with whom. There were lots of mostly white people of different ages. Lots of pops of colour and dangly earrings. Quite a few stylish grey haircuts. Much embarrassed giggling, whispering.

You see, we could all see each other (see lighting) and we didn't all know each other, and the human eye of a stranger can be a very tricky customer. When you see it, it sees you, and it knows it's seeing you. It knows that you are seeing it seeing you. Etc. Awkward for people who used to making eye contact only with those they know or have been forced into getting to know by some social contract or other.

And, of course, this was the point.

Here's Massive Owl on Massive Owl: "[We Used] To Wait explores what it means to be ‘live’ and present together in an increasingly digital world. We Used To Wait invites its audience to question why falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder, playing a spontaneous game and feeling the wind of someone run past you might be important. A rectangle of chairs. Audience and performers sat side by side. No set. Just us together. And a gentle invitation to interact…"

Not a fresh subject, but a relevant one.

Each of the performers - Danny Prosser, Sam Powell, Jenny Duffy, Jack Jago - was charismatic, likeable and watchable as they sprinted around the room, wrestled with each other and introduced themselves as Arnold. They told mundane stories about moments of connection with strangers, entirely without epiphany. The epiphany being that there had been connection.

Over the course of fifty minutes, the ensemble (pictured below) broke down the barriers between us, The Strangers, and gifted us a shared experience. The third time I was asked to hold hands with the people next to me, I didn't mind too much if I let go asap or not. I went for their hands before they went for mine. It felt natural. There was something special about us being there together - sentient and with language! - all at the same time. Massive Owl helped us to appreciate the wonder of that.

My favourite part of the show was a segment when Danny sprinted round the room. Reaching a certain corner, he saw someone that interested him and raced around the room again to get another look. Each time, he looked as long as he could without stopping, and there was something so comical and so sad about it. He managed to communicate so much about time and attraction and the failings of language. This thread was picked up again later and turned into an audience participation game, which, for me, diminished the simple power of the earlier moment.

Again there was a powerful part where the players began to introduce members of the audience to each other. It was exciting and reminded us of the value of each other, of how much possibility an individual contains, and how silly it is that we don't always talk more freely when seated so close (and inhabiting the world) together. But this too was stepped up and turned into something less meaningful that detracted from the integrity of what it had started out as.

I suppose it isn't theatre if you just run around a rectangle for ten minutes, then introduce everyone in the room to each other before playing a music and encouraging them to dance.

Still, with the theme of human connection at its centre, I wonder if Massive Owl could have striven to lay the dynamism of the production a little lower and allowed genuine human connection to rise above without the interference of games, without pulling everything back into the control of the performers.

And perhaps all this review is really saying is how apt and timely and important Massive Owl's entirely hackneyed subject is, because going to a performance designed to create, celebrate and promote human connection, I still left feeling starved of it.