Lost and found in Landscape II

“I told him I was going to see something called Landscape II and he said: what’s it about? I said I didn’t know. So he asked what Landscape I was like.”
“But there isn’t a Landscape I, is there?”
“No. But I guess if you’ve seen Ice Age it tells you what Ice Age 2 will be like.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a demanding piece of theatre, for performer and audience alike. Wilson sets herself a fiendish technical challenge: as well as narrating the text, which interweaves the lives of three women who exist in different geographical and historical time zones, she operates the sound and backdrop images from a computer and mixing desk in front of her, fingers moving busily throughout, again as though working a loom. It’s up to her audiences to see the patterns in this material for themselves. The first time I saw it, I spent as much time concentrating on concentrating as I did watching. Reading the reviews, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Here’s a bit of Andrew Haydon’s:

I found the beginning pretty hard going. … The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better?

Dan Hutton’s review conveys how long it takes to digest:

Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, but just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away and you’re in the dark again. … It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that this has all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wanders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; its scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that.

And Matt Trueman’s tells you how typical this is of Melanie’s work:

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout. You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur.

I saw Landscape II twice, and both times I spoke to people who were frustrated, even furious, with the piece: they found it confusing, impossible to follow, and because of that felt it was pretentious and self-indulgent. I also spoke to people who were enthralled by it, excited by its storytelling and dazzled by its intricate artistry. These conversations happened because of post-show events Fuel had organised at NTiYN venues: the first was a Salon at the Lighthouse in Poole, an informal Q&A session with Melanie followed by a general chat; the second was a Theatre Club at the Lakeside in Colchester, an even more informal discussion at which no one involved in making the show was present. The differences between these two events was fascinating, and taught me a lot about how people talk about theatre, and talk to its makers, and how difficult it is to articulate the questions that might help you get to grips with a complex piece of art.

At least, I found it difficult formulating those questions. In Poole I was leading a post-show discussion with a theatre-maker for the first time, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it – especially in a situation like this one, where I felt neither sure nor secure of what I’d seen. There were moments when the conversation flagged because I was nervous about jumping in and dominating the event; there were things Melanie said that afterwards I wish I’d pushed her on; and although I interview people often, it’s rarely with an audience – that was surprisingly nerve-racking. So although it was a long conversation, and lots of useful things were discussed, it felt dry and awkward to me, perhaps to others, too.

We talked quite a lot about Melanie’s work as a sound artist: that’s where her theatre begins. Every piece she makes is a development of what she can do with sound, so for instance Landscape II introduces film, which she’d never worked with before; next she’s working in opera. A particularly interesting strand of the conversation – and I so wish I’d delved into this more – involved Melanie’s desire to challenge her audience, and her readiness for her work to be divisive. I find that brave, because you can’t take such risks and be complacent, and because it’s desperately uncomfortable trying to perform amid the creaking sounds of disengaged, fidgety people shifting in their seats; but I also feel for the people who pay money to see such work and spend a portion of their evening feeling bewildered. Is this a discussion it’s possible to have straight after a show has finished? I think Melanie would have been up for it – but I shied away.

Someone asked who her inspirations are, and she talked beautifully about Patti Smith’s forthright politics, and her art, poetry, and books combining the two. Melanie admitted that she’s thinking about producing a similar book to accompany Landscape II – which would deal with the complaint, voiced by more than one person, that the programme didn’t tell them enough about the show. One woman, who recognised the landscape in the film (made by Will Duke) from having grown up in Devon, talked in some detail about the kinds of plants that had been photographed and asked about their significance; I felt an undercurrent of general perplexity that the individual natural images seemed to have no specific import, but didn’t quite know how to unpick that. One man asked whether Melanie always makes work alone, so we talked a little about her previous piece, Autobiographer; another asked why this one is called Landscape II. It’s a perfectly valid question, because there are two landscapes in the piece, North Devon and an unidentified war zone in the Middle East, and the title might seem to suggest that the work is about one of them, or a sequel to an earlier work (as attested by the lovely conversation I’ve quoted above, between two audience members in Colchester). But it was also a question that the journalist in me, or the snob in me, recoiled from, as one that Melanie must get asked everywhere, making it boring for her to answer. To her credit, she answered it gracefully, but something still troubled me.

It was this: I spoke to the same man and his wife after Melanie had left the discussion, and confirmed that they’d both had huge issues with Landscape II. They’d found it obscure, opaque, impossible to piece together. I told the woman that it reminded me of reading poetry: I love reading poetry, but frequently feel bewildered by it, so what I get from it isn’t necessarily comprehension but a feeling, an atmosphere, something I absorb. She frowned a little and said: I don’t read poetry. There was something she and others in the room wanted to access in Landscape II, a code almost, which would tell them everything about the humans in the piece whose lives felt beyond their reach. I wish asking the question, “Why is it called Landscape II?” or “Why isn’t there more information in the programme?” could have given these people what they needed, but I don’t think it did. As the person hosting the discussion, and steering it, I had a responsibility to ask better questions – but I didn’t know what they might be, either.

The discussion in Colchester couldn’t have been more different. That was partly to do with the audience: the Lakeside is on a university campus, so there were a lot of students, and a lot of those were drama students. But age, or gender, or relationship with theatre, by no means determined response. The most enthusiastic speaker at the Theatre Club was a man in his 50s, who thought the pace, delivery, delicacy, narrative, politics, sound design, use of film, every single element that made up Landscape II and the balance between them was perfect. The least enthusiastic were two female teenagers who didn’t understand anything about the characters, found the film and music distracting, and argued that this work didn’t belong in a theatre, it should have been in a gallery. Everyone else at the Theatre Club – and at its biggest we might have had 30 people gathered – fell somewhere in the spectrum between those two poles, making this one of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had about a show.

Without Melanie present, the audience became responsible for expanding each other’s interpretation and appreciation of the piece. That’s a wonderful shift in dynamic. Instead of asking Melanie why she wanted to use film in her work, or why she chose North Devon as her setting, we discussed the effect the film had on us. How distracted were we by it? If the close-up images of plants or rocks didn’t signify anything specific, what did we get from them being there? Susan Sontag’s writing on cinema came up, and one woman talked about our conditioning by Hollywood to receive all the imagery in a film as part of a single narrative. Landscape II, we agreed, uses film differently: not as a shorthand to speedy comprehension, but as part of a longer meditation on our place in the world and our connections to each other.

That difference between linear narrative and discursive meditation charged a lot of the conversation. Although the two teenagers were the most bamboozled, they weren’t the only people who had struggled to fit together the relationships between the three women in the piece. It’s not surprising: even trying to explain the story ties sentences up in knots. Wilson “plays” (it feels like the wrong word because she spends the entirety of Landscape II sitting behind a desk, talking in the first person, but mostly narrating from a script) a war photographer called Vivian, staying in an isolated barnhouse in North Devon; a century before, her great-great-grandmother Beatrice stayed in the same house, and Vivian gets to know her through a sheaf of diary-letters Beatrice had written and left behind. The third woman, Mina, lives somewhere in the Middle East; Vivian formed a relationship with her while on a long assignment there, but their friendship ends in violent circumstances, which Vivian is struggling to assimilate.

I was honest with the group: it had taken me two viewings of Landscape II to appreciate the subtlety of the links between the three women, and to register fully that Beatrice and Mina are connected, despite the time and land that separate them, in their understanding of the role of women in life, and in their experience of being constrained by society. And it was really enjoyable to compare notes with everyone else as to the things they had and hadn’t picked up. We asked each other: should a piece of theatre be so complex as to confound people who are probably going to see it only once? Should theatre be more clear in its storytelling, arguments and ideas? That might resolve issues for the people who felt lost, but where would it leave those who had relished the work of finding the feminist and political resonances for themselves? The question of Melanie’s background in sound design came up, setting off a vigorous debate about dynamics: some found the restraint of Melanie’s delivery drew them in, some felt repelled by it, all had an opinion. Would they have expressed those opinions if Melanie had been sitting among us, I wondered? The teenager said yes: if she thinks something, she’ll say it, and not worry what anyone thinks. (As it happens, when Landscape II played at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Melanie was faced with an audience as divisive as that in Colchester, whose negative quotient challenged her vociferously in the post-show discussion. The event was a lot livelier than the Salon I hosted in Poole, but a lot more tense, too.)

Taking part in these two discussions sharpened several questions for me. Are theatre-makers the best people to elucidate their work to audiences – and is a post-show discussion the best time and place for this to happen? How can audiences be invited to elucidate it for each other? Where does this expectation that a piece of theatre stands or falls on what happens in the moment in the room come from? I recently went to the Ashmolean in Oxford to see the (thoughtfully curated, frequently illuminating, heartily recommended) Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition: it begins with large-scale photographs of the two men’s studios, and throughout contains sketches of work in progress, maquettes of sculptures, information about the historical, political and biographical context of many of the works. Why is the making of theatre shrouded in such secrecy – and might better access to the questions and notions that come up in a rehearsal room offer audiences a code to crack complex work? The people who got on badly with Landscape II struggled because it didn’t give characters, story and resolution on a plate, but required its audiences to participate in making the meal together. I remember being very struck by how Melanie begins her performance in the same space as the audience, and smiles at them conspiratorially before saying a word: my role in the room, as interpreter, felt clear. But is this subtle acknowledgement enough preparation for less regular theatregoers? What else could be given to them to draw them into Melanie’s world?

I’ve also been thinking about honesty, the levels of honesty that are possible in talking about theatre. While I’ve been wrestling with this blog post, another critic, Miriam Gillinson, has published a sizzly blog on the Blouin ArtInfo site, on how tricky but useful anger is as a response: “Sometimes it’s the clearest sign that a show is actually working,” she argues. “It shows us that we care, that we want to understand.” And yet, how useful is anger to a post-show discussion, if it fuels defensiveness and incrimination (the declaration “that wasn’t good theatre”), without shaping the questions that might help an audience care about what they’ve seen, or understand it?

The following day, Lyn Gardner published a delightful piece on the Guardian website, advocating the importance of “responding as we really feel – and saying what we really think”. Something Lyn alludes to, and Andrew Haydon develops in his astute comments below the piece, is the difference between responding to work and judging it, be that positively or negatively. This difference isn’t often taken into account when talking about theatre, particularly in a culture where theatre is rated using a star/numbering system. Plus there is a problem in culture general in talking openly about how we feel: it’s considered self-indulgent, unnecessary. There is an intellectual anxiety to overcome when work confuses us. The hierarchies of opinion embedded in our culture – the voices of theatre-makers or critics are those of authority, the audience can’t be trusted – discourage people from trusting their own responses. I fall prey to this too: the first thing I do when I walk out of a play is get on my phone and look up reviews, by Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love. How different would it be if I turned to the people around me and asked: what did you make of that?

I learned more about Landscape II from talking with a confused, angry, transported, politicised, engaged audience in Colchester than I did from asking Melanie Wilson decorous, careful questions about her work in Poole. That isn’t a criticism of Melanie, or her audience in Poole, it’s a recognition that audiences are being done a disservice when they’re not encouraged to respond to work with more than a thumbs-up on Twitter or a comment below a newspaper review, when their subjective interpretation of work isn’t encouraged, and when the only opportunity they’re given for conversation with theatre-makers is the fragile hour after a show has finished. Theatre needs to open up more places in which these complicated dialogues can happen – which is a lot of what the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is about.

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