Abstract exceptionalism

10 April 2017

Joy, energy and an expert handling of complex themes: Lily James just has to tell you all about he she they

The opening ceremony did no justice to he she they. It made me nervous going in. I was expecting big talk, spoken into empty spaces. Strobe. It felt heavy and dense, and even po-faced.

Instead, it’s a seriously engaging and engaged play. It’s shockingly fun, in among its power and its candour.  

Diogo Silva and Gabriella Pollard spin like anatomical drawings. The cast and musicians recite body parts with a cool and musical detachment: words like mandible, trunk, become mystic and meaningless.

The sustained and unwavering focus that the musicians (Oscar Lane, Oliver Rudge, Dan Ledley, Franklin Dawson, Xander McKenzie) give to the performers means that the energy built is held as taught as a wire across the entire stage.

Silva and Pollard bring complimentary performance skills. Pollard has a preternatural musicality, Silva a hybrid dancer/actor with a vulnerable, even chaotic stage presence. They hit, they touch, they repel each other.

Silva’s solo sees him drown in heavy fleece and pink silk, and save himself. Pollard expresses femininity as rage, backed by the sensitive score composed by Lane and Rudge, alongside Ned Armstrong, Fred Bailey and Dominic Mckiernan.

It’s the kind of score that makes you feel all gutty like someone is squeezing your insides: big, solid drums and dreamy guitars played with bows.

Tanyaradzwa Louise Violet narrates an invented fairy tale with gravitas and studied neutrality, as Megan Peacock interjects, demanding that the tale be revised, the genders changed, the clothes edited. They make great contrasts: stillness and restlessness, authority and anarchy.

The fact that the cast make demands on each other, interrogate their own stories, means that it feels appropriate when they turn their gaze on to the audience and start to make demands on them. Even if it scares me, quite a lot, when it happens.

In the immediate aftermath of a brutal audio clip of hate speech, Peacock starts to tap dance. You think it’s the light relief and then it’s not.

The audience stops laughing as Peacock’s feet stop feeling like punchline cymbals, and start sounding like Rumpelstiltskin, and Peacock stamps herself into pieces: she quite literally breaks the soles off of her shoes.

Recitations of Trunk, Mandible, Knee are replaced by a list of gender identities, overlaid with a continual question spoken by Lily Campbell to the audience: “How do you feel?” The lists of nouns stop being abstract: How do you feel.

The lists are now aiding, explaining, not prescribing and prodding: Rowan Beasley’s earlier tearing up of papers confirms this symbolism. This is one of the really good things about this play. The themes are complex, so the images are kept slick, and the metaphors sustained.

Was there anything wrong with it? Probably, if you wanted there to be. But its impact is joyous and big. A girl rushes up to me and a friend in the bar, bursting with the desire to talk about it: “I just had to tell you.” I know how she feels. It’s very good – I just had to tell you. 

Send your reviews, thoughts and jokes to: noff@nsdf.org.uk


Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca