This performance at The Basement was one I picked up on whilst writing the first of my new monthly feature for One Stop Arts, I nearly didn’t go and but I am so very glad I did.
Sofia Dias and Vítor Roriz created a hypnotic performance of sounds and gesture in this piece of work that rendered words beautifully meaningless. Meaningless at least in the sense in which we usually use them to create meaning.
The performance began by taking a comedic tone with the two performers playing around with words. That game where you say a word so many times it becomes ridiculous, begins to sound like something else and then – suddenly – is that something else. The game continues in this way with each word metamorphosing into another – I love becomes I cough becomes…well, actually I can’t remember. Words are sounds as much as they are words, and I found it was possible to choose whether to attentively listen and pick up meaning from what was spoken, or to tune in to the soundscape being created.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because actually the performance didn’t quite begin with this game. It began with a coherent sentence being spoken to initiate this game and breakdown of meaning, of everyday semantic codes. This first phrase was “open your eyes” – repeated like an order, until I felt my eyes straining under the pressure to be open, thinking to myself “but they are open, look. They’re always open when I’m awake, how can I make them more open?”
How can we make our eyes more open when we go to the theatre? Maybe by seeing something that doesn’t follow the conventions we’re used to, that doesn’t make ‘sense’ in a normal way, that wakes us up from the everyday theatre-going experience. The idea of art drawing attention to the eye – the means of perceiving – and of waking its spectator up as if from a trance isn’t a new one. Think of the eye of Bunuel and Dali’s avant-garde masterpiece Un Chien Andalou and all the following references to the eye in cinema. It’s perhaps less directly referenced in theatre, or at least not in such a direct way aimed at the spectator and it’s actually quite interesting to dwell on this. When watching cinema we know our gaze is directed and we know we are watching through the eye of the screen/camera – in the theatre our gaze is presumably free to roam, but is it? There are codes and patterns of perceiving theatre that we’ve become so conditioned to that it’s almost as if theatrical tradition is acting like the film camera; in this case we do, as spectators, occasionally need reminding of this – or need waking up.
The command to open our eyes, then, began A Gesture that is Nothing but a Threat, and thank god our eyes were open because what they took in was wonderful. Complex scores of gesture based movement were brilliantly constructed and executed, space and simple set were used to full extent and the soundscapes (vocal and instrumental) added an intricate layer. With its play with language and meaning the piece brought mind Caryl Churchill’s playful and challenging play Blue Kettle.
One final thing added to my enjoyment of this piece, and this is something that seems to go against everything I’ve just said. This was the control of the images within the performance – for there were moments when the stage relationship (of bodies, space and set) presented could have been pulled from a naturalistic play or a film. These moments were ones where the signifiers could not be fought, and probably weren’t intended to be, where meaning came crashing into place only to be playfully destroyed moments later.
It was this blend of meaning and seeming meaninglessness that made A Gesture that is Nothing but a Threat so great; with this combination it touched on something very true to life, and gently laughed at our tendency to add intense meaning to absolutely everything.