Fringe Online 2020
‘An Ice Thing to Say’ is billed as – ‘surviving the Anthropocene’.
The production starts with the computer screen completely black, and a woman’s voice telling us that she can’t see anything outside her room, but she can hear people clapping in the street “so it must be Thursday”. Clapping for the NHS during Covid-19 It’s on a screen because we’re at home watching a performance taking place under lockdown conditions, with live theatre and public mingling severely restricted. We’re currently in hiding from a pandemic that has probably been caused by unsafe food practices, and in the longer term we are being battered by increasingly violent weather events that signify fossil-fuel driven climate change. The world’s oceans are cluttered up with non-biodegradable plastic, and we are also causing the biggest mass extinction of animal and plant species since the demise of the dinosaurs fifty million years ago.
Welcome to the Anthropocene.
So how did we get here? Vertebra Theatre have tried to answer that question with a stunning online production which mixes video footage, live-action physical theatre, masks and incredibly evocative lighting and sound, with music and sound effects by Gregory Emfietzis. It’s the tale of how we are destroying our environment – for this reviewer it brought to mind ‘Paradise Lost’.
Great art – and I think that this production ranks as great art – gets its strength by telling complicated truths simply. We don’t need masses of detail if we can be given a powerful image that sticks in the mind. In this production they have used large blocks of ice: really large blocks, oblong in shape and a few feet long – big enough to sit on but (just) light enough to push around and stand up on one end. Transparent. Immaculate. There are four of them, sitting on a sheet of heavy polythene about three metres square.
At the opening, we follow a hand-held video camera tracking a woman (Stella Evangelia) as she eases open the door of what looks like an abandoned factory workspace. It’s light inside, daylight spilling in through windows, and the concrete floor is quite bare apart from the blocks of ice. She approaches them tentatively, and proceeds to run her hands, face and limbs across the smooth surfaces of the pristine forms. It’s beautifully shot, close-up images of her touching, examining. Sometimes we see her slightly distorted image through the limpid mass of the ice itself.
The ice blocks are melting very slowly, of course, and the meltwater lubricates their movement as she slides them around on the plastic to rearrange them, to gauge the weight, the heft of what she’s found. It made me think of how very young children learn about the world around them – the physical contact of touching, pushing, licking and rubbing teaching us essential things long before the onset of language.
And here’s the thing – the simple image of clear, transparent blocks of ice led me to imagine the world as it must have appeared to our distant ancestors: mysterious, impenetrable and governed by rules that we didn’t understand. William Blake was able ‘to see a world in a grain of sand’. I was seeing one in a block of ice.
And then there are two. The woman we’ve followed is dressed in the kind of black top and shorts that you’d wear to the gym, but suddenly there’s another figure, rather androgynous and dressed more formally in black trousers and a shirt, who appears seemingly out of nowhere. They don’t speak; but they interact, touching and moving, both with each other and with the ice blocks. The second figure (Mayra Stergiou) occasionally lifts up the first woman and holds her, but she seems dispassionate, intent on avoiding closer or more intimate contact, and after a while she leaves. She steps off the plastic sheet into the much larger workspace around them and that’s the last we see of her; and the first woman seems unable to leave her sheet and follow.
Was the second woman … God? Maybe that’s how it feels when ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche felt that humanity had destroyed the need for a deity following the rise of scientific rationality. The mystery of the natural world had been superseded by knowledge, which has given us great power, but also made the Universe a very lonely place. There’s a sequence of small video segments on a split screen, looking like a Zoom meeting – but to me it spoke of individual people alone in their rooms, dancing, or exercising, or maybe just using repetitive movement to keep their minds off the great questions of existence. (Piedad Albarracin Seiquer featured in these, along with Stergiou and Evangelia). There are voice-overs too – “Empty days” … “You can see the sun but your feet are only allowed to touch the shade” … “I was angry at it, I just wanted to cry and scream”.
The plight of polar bears on shrinking ice floes is often used as a symbol of the climate emergency, and Vertebra Theatre have produced a poignant bear, just by the wearing of a bear mask as the actor sits on an ice block. A simple mask in white, the basic shape, without features, without eyes, reminiscent of the Neolithic Greek Cycladic statues. There’s a keening, haunting singing sound (by Myrto Loulaki) overlaying this sequence. In addition to its position on the melting ice, this sad bear was initially bound up in festoons of waste plastic cling-film – two such powerful symbols of our despoilation of our environment.
Empty days. One of the voice-overs asks if we are able to handle silence, and states that “We don’t know where we started, or where it will end”. In ‘The Tin Drum’, one of Günter Grass’s characters looked at the WW2 concrete blockhouses of the Atlantic Wall and defined the Twentieth Century as ‘ Barbaric. Mystical. Bored.’ They were solid blocks, too, and the concrete must have been as pristine as the ice blocks when they were first cast. When you’re bored, and feel lost, you cover over those feelings by frenetic activity and consumption. And sometimes violence. That’s what humanity has done, using up the planet’s resources, and trashing what we can’t use.
It’s all that activity and consumption that takes up the latter part of ‘An Ice Thing to Say’. There’s a terrifying segment where the woman is eating a large bunch of grapes off the top of one of the ice blocks. Not just eating – that’s too neutral – she’s gorging on them, cramming them into her mouth and mashing them against her lips so that the red juice runs down her chin and neck. More. And more. It had got dark in the space, and the light had turned red on her, her eyes wide with the frenzy of consumption, and it felt like I was watching the Cyclops devouring Odysseus’ crewmen in the cave.
Industrialisation. Some time has passed, the daylight has completely faded outside, and the ice blocks have melted enough that they are now sitting in shallow pools of water on the plastic sheet. The lighting turns redder, hinting at Dark Satanic Mills (William Blake again), and we hear the sound of railway hooters, and wagons clanking and screeching over the tracks, as the woman attacks the blocks with increasingly powerful tools. She’d started by scribing circles onto the shiny surfaces, sitting hunched forward on one block while holding her compasses like in Blake’s drawing of Isaac Newton; but later she’s using a small chisel, then a bigger one and a hammer, and eventually a full-size workman’s pick, to chip and gouge and smash away at the ice. Frantic. Frenzied. At one point she has a blade in each hand, teeth clenched as she hammers at the block. As the voice-over had said – “I was angry at it, I just wanted to cry and scream”
Soon the smooth shiny surfaces are gone, to be replaced by jagged crevasses in the blocks, and chips and larger chunks are split off, to lie in the pools of melted ice. The pace of demolition speeds up, and at the end there are just a collection of broken shards, melting even faster now that they are much smaller. At the end, the woman is lying surrounded by the wreckage of broken ice, lit by red light, clutching at a few remaining pieces and apparently trying to push them together. An unforgettable image, a terrifying symbol of where we find ourselves; bringing to mind those lines from ‘The Waste Land’ –
‘ These fragments I have shored against my ruins ‘
So ‘An Ice Thing to Say’ is a dark and disturbing warning – It’s not easy to watch, but it’s also an incredibly beautiful piece of theatre. Stella Evangelia’s fluid movements as she swings around the ice blocks are nothing short of balletic, and her interactions with Mayra Stergiou are sensitive and engaging. They managed to produce, totally wordlessly, a sense of being simultaneously close and yet distant. And then Stergiou leaves – it’s why I mentioned ‘Paradise Lost’ at the beginning of this review. The physical movements are beautifully executed; but remember that we’re seeing all this shot on a video, and Theo Prodromidis’ camerawork is superb. The lighting effects are ravishing, especially in the later scenes – as well as the lighting on the actor, we are given close-up images of the blocks, glowing with red and blue light refracted through the ice.
A couple of years ago I saw and reviewed Vertebra Theatre’s production of ‘Dark Matter’. That had beautiful lighting effects, too, but it was done on a physical stage with projections onto a screen. As a consequence of the pandemic we’re forced to watch this one online, but personally I think it probably gains in power by allowing the camera to control space and time much more than would be possible in a live performance. So perhaps we are lucky – out of the difficulties of Covid-19 we have gained a deeper experience of a great work of art.