Brighton Fringe 2017
Hiske Eriks is beautiful.
No, she really is a beautiful young woman – years younger than the middle-aged security guard sitting in the art museum side-gallery at Sweet Waterfront.
You could see it was a side room, a small appendix off the main viewing thoroughfare, that holds just a few exhibits. Grey curtains on the three sides of this one, and a single picture in a heavy gilded frame hanging on the central wall. A rather bold Impressionist painting of a young woman, nude from the waist up, hands on her head so that her raised arms elevated her large breasts with their prominent nipples.
It’s called ‘Half-Naked’ in English, and it’s by a Dutch painter called Jan Sluijters, who was born in 1881. I know this because there was a small notice next to the frame and when I got home I Googled him. He seems to have specialised in painting women, clothed and unclothed – he was rather good at breasts.
While I was at it I Googled Hiske Eriks too, which is how I know that in real life she’s beautiful.
But here she looks about forty or more, tall and thin, with her hair in a severe parting right down the centre and then scraped back into a small bun behind. She’s wearing big round glasses and her lips are pursed because she’s got her cheeks slightly sucked in. She looks like a dried-up spinster schoolmistress.
She’s a gallery security attendant, so she’s wearing a pale blue blouse with a silk scarf at the throat, under a dark blue jacket and a loose dark blue skirt that reaches well below her knees. She’s sitting on a tall swivel seat next to the painting. And it’s not comfortable.
Most theatre involves the audience looking at the action through a ‘fourth wall’, and that’s how it was here. We sat looking at her, in reality in a room at Jury’s Inn hotel, while she sat on her seat looking out past us towards the main gallery somewhere behind. Staring straight ahead, straight through us. We’ve all seen that stare when we’ve visited museums and art galleries – the attendants are as unmoving as the artefacts they guard. Except that her seat isn’t comfortable. It’s hard wood, with no cushion, and it’s a bit too high to sit on easily – when she perches on it her feet don’t touch the floor. So occasionally she moves slightly, adjusting her position, and the seat squeaks as she does so.
For quite a while that squeaking was the only sound we could hear. Eriks would peer out to check that no-one was in sight, then twist a bit on the seat, and then return to her motionless state. After a bit, she tried to adjust the seat’s height, leaning over and balancing horizontally as she reached down to fiddle with the lever on the central column. Then back upright quickly – maybe she’d seen someone passing the room’s entrance …
Minimal theatre. Physical theatre. When there’s nothing happening, the smallest movement takes on an enormous significance. But she’s bored, and there’s no-one around, so she starts to hum, and then sing softly. “Do Re Mi – Doe, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun …” From ‘The Sound of Music’, which was ironic, because up to that point there’d been no music and hardly any sound.
Still nobody comes. So she gets up, does a little dance, back and forth in front of the painting. Then she seems to have a thought – she’s getting bolder – she comes to the front of the stage, past the (hopefully watertight) waste bin that’s at one side, and checks again that there’s really no-one in sight. She goes back to the painting, and for the first time we realise that there’s a line on the floor in front of it, the kind to stop viewers getting too close.
As she steps over this line, she gives a little grin, like a naughty child, and by now we’re so involved in the smallest details of her emotions that we can share that frisson of transgression as she moves right up to the painting and TOUCHES THE WOMAN ON THE NIPPLE. It was so unexpected that there was a small collective gasp from the audience.
There’s more – much, much more to tell, as she becomes increasingly corporeally involved with ‘Half-Naked’, but I don’t want to spoil your own enjoyment of this gripping piece of theatre by giving too much away. (Though I’ve given you a small clue in the detail about the waste bin, and at one point we do get to see Hiske Erik’s own nipples.) I certainly don’t want to tell you what happens when a gallery visitor finally arrives to take a look at ‘Half-Naked’. At the end, we shuffled out shaking our heads in disbelief at what we’d just seen.
‘Wacht!’ is only twenty minutes long, and there are no spoken words apart from ‘Do Re Mi’, but in that time Hiske Eriks managed to create a wonderfully evocative portrait of the inner life of a gallery attendant. The actor is a consummate minimalist – tiny glances to right and left made the larger gallery behind us completely believable, while her very mobile face with its occasional impish grins gave us a window onto the woman’s soul, bursting to escape its museum guard straitjacket.
‘Wacht!’ means ‘Watch’ in Dutch, or perhaps ‘Wait’ or ‘Guard’. All these meanings suit the piece, but for me ‘Watch!’ best catches the essence. I will never look at gallery staff in quite the same way in the future.