Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ambiguity (Ring @ Tramway)

Ambiguity - dontcha just hate it? Theatre criticism is supposed to be a simple affair: 250 words, kicking up with a plot summary and ending with a recommendation. Bish-bosh, and out. Simple enough, as long as the play has the moral complexity of a pantomime or Macbeth. But allow anyone involved in Shunt to write it, or give the choreographer a grant from a scientific institute, and 50 non-sexual shades of grey fill the stage.

Contemporary performance - whether it fits in with established norms of script and Shakespeare, or comes from those wild and wacky live artists who can't decide whether to be visual or performance art - thrives on ambiguity. Don't let the enduring popularity of Macbeth fool you. Shakespeare's story of patrilineal succession is so out of fashion, the only way directors can stand doing it is to subvert the meaning. When this works - as in the NTS' version starring Alan Cumming - it draws out an intriguing subtext. When it fails, I'm left wondering why paramilitary organisations are so worried about their children.

The solution is probably to obsess about the details of a particular performance: was this actor any good? Did the script have the ring of authenticity? It doesn't resolve the ambiguity, but it gets the article written. Bish-bosh and out.

Of course, this doesn't do justice to the seriousness of the art, or the potential for theatre to become part of a broader discourse. Tales of Magical Realism and Ring (both at Tramway and both, typically for the venue, slipping between genres of performance) refuse any literal representation of reality, or nice simple plot. Reducing their narratives to introductory paragraphs fails to embrace their emotional impact.

Ring's plot is relatively, and deceptively, simple. An encounter group, which decides to meet in the dark (with the inevitable potential for masturbatory shenanigans), picks on one of the members, accusing them of all sorts of murderous antics. Whether naughty Frances has actually killed, stalked or irritated anyone is never made explicit. Even better, the part of Frances, thanks to audio trickery, is played by every single audience.

From the gentle introduction, Ring inducts the audience into darkness and a group riven by petty rivalries and serious menace. Guy Dartnell, the genial host, is replaced by a chorus of voices who alternately whisper viciously, croon love songs and reassure. A fragmented journey backwards in time, perhaps finally unveiling a secret death, takes in the comic - the description of a group for chronic masturbators, some trite bickering - and the vicious, with muffled screams and at least one member of the group suddenly and violently expelled.

When narrative is this disjointed, something else has to take its place to maintain the piece's coherence. David Rosenberg uses binaural recording, giving the illusion that the events are happening around the room (in truth, the audience is wearing headphones and the actors are not present). Removing even the slightest light - Ring is experienced in complete darkness - the soundscape is heavy, threatening and intimate. The occasional sound of muffled screams, or the smash of a glass become jarring and the whispers are sensual and disturbing.

Every audience member experiences the performance alone, wrapped in sound and the dark. This stark alienation makes Frances' story personal, and the noises hovering at the edges of comprehension all the more terrifying. The encounter group's reasons for coming together are never clear and the descriptions of violence, and unpleasant sexual encounters, may be delusion or fantasy.

The power of Ring is poised on this ambiguity, between what is really happening - strangers sitting in a room, listening to the same script yet separated - and what the script presents - a series of arguments, memories and scenarios, played out by sound alone. Ring doesn't make any grand statements, suggesting rather the isolation of the various characters and the irony of their understanding of each other's situations: instead, it pokes at the frail fabric of how reality is shaped. The subtle binaural recordings, which map sound in such a way as to apparently position the sounds in space, mocks the way that the mind maps sense data and the constant shifts of scene and perspective shatter any consistent perception of events.

It's the true horror of ambiguity, the nightmare of social disorder. Alliances are made and broken, a child may have died to the nonchalant notice of one adult, a woman may be performing sexual tricks in a hotel, the group may be trying to unravel a past conflict. The group dissolves, reforms, bullies and cajoles. It feels so intimate and yet it is a prerecording that is the same for every audience member.

It could mean anything... I am lost... it's black... the lights go back up and only one demon is left.... is this supposed to be a review? It starts off like another one of his lectures...

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