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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

The flyer said that ‘Cathedral’ is inspired by a Raymond Carver short story of that name.   Personally, I couldn’t see very much connection – apart from somebody remembering their past, which isn’t the main point of Carver’s story.  Perhaps linking it to a ‘serious’ writer gives a play some gravitas.


What ‘Cathedral’ did bring to mind, though, was a passage from ‘Justine’, the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’.   There, the main character is describing an old sailor called Scobie – “One by one his memories leak through the faulty machinery of his mind until he no longer knows them for his own. Behind him I see the long grey rollers of the Atlantic at work, curling up over his memories, smothering them in spray, blinding him” … “He tries to remember, but the grey rollers intervene, the long effortless tides patrol the barrier between himself and his memory”.

‘Cathedral’ is about memory, and the difficulty of keeping memories organised and faithful while the entropy of the passing years gradually degrades them towards chaos. It’s about the sea, too – the stage at The Warren was black and completely bare, and as we sat down there was the rhythmic sound of surf crashing on sand or shingle, each time followed by that scraping noise as the water retreats, before rebuilding itself into the next breaker. Incredibly bright backlights shone straight into our eyes, dazzling us like sunlight on a bright midsummer day at the seaside.

But then it went dark, the whole stage becoming inky black. All the action was taking place inside the protagonist’s head. We just heard the man’s voice out of the darkness, on an amplified soundtrack, as he recalled events that had taken place with someone, presumably a lover, years before.

Fragments of events, actually. This wasn’t a coherent narrative – we got small snippets of what the narrator remembered, but they would be counterbalanced by different versions of the same events. An alternative perspective? – or perhaps it was a another time altogether, a different recollection jostling with the first? Was there perhaps more than one lover, one long-finished relationship, surfacing from the depths of his memory? Sometimes the voice broke up into a cacophony of bangs and static, as though the tracks of memory had become corrupted over the years.

The first light on the stage came from a small hand lamp, held by a woman in a dark summer dress. Just short flashes, as if from a lighthouse at night – the sea again – but enough to show us the presence of the actor in the darkened space.

Then there was a second woman on the stage as well. As the crepuscular side-light brightened just enough to show us both their outlines, we could see that she was wearing a similar dress, though paler. We could hear their voices, too, on the soundtrack – splinters of past events, repeated and jumbled like the man’s.   Sometimes just the small lamps they held lit each woman momentarily, focusing our attention this way or that, before being extinguished, leaving us once more in darkness.

With similar clothing and hair, were they in fact different recollections of the same woman?  The Fye and Foul company didn’t give anything away – we had to make our own judgment.  That’s the power of this production – it managed to immerse us in the jumbled inner life of the narrator.  We heard the women speak about some event – a meeting, a parting, a family event, a sexual act – but what we were actually hearing was the man’s memory of their words. Perhaps he’s remembering them accurately, possibly he’s forgotten the detail, or conceivably he’s actually repressing something that is too painful to confront. We don’t know which – but then of course neither does he.

Maybe the past is always like this – another country, glimpsed indistinctly, fading as it recedes away from us through time. Fye and Foul managed to convey that recession physically, too. Sand, fine as flour, falling from above in thin streams, as if the women were somehow inside an hour-glass. Sand, catching the light from the small lamps as it cascaded over them, veiling their features as if they were behind water or silk. The sand of beaches, where children make castles, and lovers make love.

This company know how to engage an audience’s attention – we were held spellbound for almost an hour. Subtle movements, beautifully orchestrated and perfectly controlled, as the women moved around the stage in the dim light. They weren’t easy to see, we had to strain to make out detail.

Beautiful – though not all of the stage work added to the narrative. I felt occasionally that we were seeing movement for its own sake, while the meaning of the production was conveyed by the voices on the sound track.

But then suddenly an upward facing lamp would light a thin stream of falling sand, producing the impression of a solid column. Like in a cathedral … Enchanting images. Unforgettable.

Some productions lead the audience by the hand, but not this one. We were treated as adults, made to confront the messy reality of someone’s consciousness, and forced to draw our own conclusions – based, as in real life, on incomplete evidence. An exhilarating experience, immersive and challenging. Theatre to make an audience look deeper at life – and at ourselves.