Brighton Festival 2018
This unique moving theatre on a specially converted bus takes the audience around the city to various key points for site-specific scenes based around two performance poetry pieces.
This site-specific show opened on The Barge in Brighton Marina with a life-drawing class. The audience/participants are guided into looking and thinking about things in a more focussed way by the ‘art teacher’ and by studying and drawing the young model. The ‘teacher’ drifts away and the supposedly 65 year-old model/performance poet (and author of the piece) starts a monologue, reflecting on her past, and asking the sketchers “Can you tell who I’ve been in this life, and how I’ve lived it, and what I’ve seen?”
After this ‘prologue’ the audience were guided to a converted double-decker bus that has been sliced open diagonally where the audience/passengers spend the rest of the performance in raked seating facing backwards—the perfect metaphor for our journey into the past—as a moveable theatre stand.
The audience don headphones and an instant transformation takes place, as everyday noises are replaced by soothing ambient sounds (although one of our party felt this was “Clumsy New Age plodding synth on a Choir setting”). The subsequent hijacking of one sense instantly transports the viewer into another state (rather like a silent disco), which, along with driving backwards and being high up, alters perspectives. This is the show’s masterstroke. Being driven around familiar landscapes in an entirely new way places the audience in an almost hypnotic state, removing them from the world that surrounds them and allowing them to perceive the streets as if they were cinema screen and focussing solely on the performer.
Each time the bus parked up it was engaging to watch the poet emerge into the scene in a striking white dress. As we piece together the story of the woman’s past, it began invoking suppressed or forgotten memories and nostalgia in the audience, transporting them, both physically and emotionally, back to their own youth.
What’s fascinating about the show is the lack of interaction of people in the street with the performer. Despite her standing in the street talking to herself, the public were almost entirely oblivious, as if she was invisible or a ghost of the past. This skilful piece of misdirection had the general public staring at the bus and the audience, missing the performance beside them being piped into the passenger’s headphones.
The use of the city and its unwitting inhabitants can cause awkward moments for the audience; in the performance we watched there was a homeless man unknowingly captured “on stage.” But by now the audience’s perceptions have been so tweaked that questions start to arise as to who are the actors and who are merely bystanders and there are some genuinely excellent unexpected moments and twists. The change of reality gave the expectation that everyone was a character in the story as we felt separated from the real world, voyeuristically staring in from another dimension.
The final pull-away shot, as we leave the performer behind, is a pure classic cinematic moment, with the audience’s eyes acting as the camera.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather and we could imagine that it would be a completely different experience in the pouring rain, but such is the strength and weakness of site-specific work.
The production, execution and performance were effortless. There are a two different performer/writers (you wait for a truly unique show and then two come along at once) and so there’s a chance to experience the event again in a slightly different manner. If there are any criticisms to be levelled it’s that the performer we saw was too young to play a credible 65 year-old and failed to capture the voice or vocabulary. An older actor would’ve been better for the opening monologue, which came across with too much youthful self-indulgence.
The narrative was too weak for such a momentous and spectacular concept, and while the story was deliberately fragmented, from scene to scene, it meant that the flow was interrupted and ultimately was confusing and unengaging.
However, despite that, this is an absolutely brilliant and original concept full of enormous potential for creating all sorts of incredible plots on city streets, from romances to action-thrillers. We expect this theatre bus service to run and run.