Brighton Fringe 2013
David Sheppeard says in the programme notes that ‘Holocene’ is not the right title for this show, but I think he’s wrong. I think ‘Holocene’ is perfect – if ironic.
The Holocene is the geological period starting at the end of the last Ice Age and continuing up to the present time. The Earth has enjoyed a temperate climate, and humans have been able to develop agriculture, cities, high technology and a global civilisation. It’s all we’ve ever known, and it may not be the Garden of Eden, but we live comfortable lives in pretty stable surroundings, don’t we?
Well, actually – No. It may look unchanging on a day-to-day view, but on a longer timescale the planet is remarkably unstable. Yellowstone National Park in the US, holiday destination for beautiful wildlife and stunning landscape views, is actually the site of a supervolcano – a linked ring of volcanoes that last erupted 640,000 years ago, pumping two hundred and forty cubic MILES of dust and ash into the atmosphere. Next time that happens – and it will – it could plunge the whole world into darkness for five years. And the next eruption is forty thousand years overdue!
David learned all this aged eleven, from geology videos shown him by his mother, Helen. She’s a geography teacher, with a fascination for geology, but when David asked – "What would happen if it erupts?", and she tried to reassure him – "Don’t worry, I’ll look after you", it was obvious to the boy that – "she was lying – quite blatantly".
For David is a worrier. And constantly afraid. He’s a rather slight figure, and he appeared on the stage in a thin yellow anorak, black trousers and no shoes. He addressed the audience directly, and his mimicry of characters in his monologue – especially Americans – was witty and occasionally very barbed. He’s a good story-teller. There’s a table on the stage and David sat on it, isolated by a single spotlight, reliving the fear of the high diving board at school, and the shame of climbing back down – "I’m not doing it …". At age eleven, the realisation that – "As well as being born gay, I was born scared. Thanks, God."
He’s obsessive-compulsive. At sixteen – "My first forays into adolescent cottaging", David took seven HIV tests – "to make me feel better"; and at seventeen, convinced that the house would be burgled, he used to go downstairs in the middle of the night to check the locks – seven times… At twenty-one he had a full breakdown. His treatment included seeing illustrations of OCD sufferers and their obsession with cleanliness, germs or whatever. David realised that – "I was part of a special group of people called ‘mentally ill people’, and we got cartoons drawn about us".
These cartoons were projected on a screen at the rear of the stage area. The seating at the Nightingale had been reduced so that almost half the theatre was given over to the acting space, with almost no set, just the screen, the already-mentioned table, and a single chair. Simple flat lighting over the whole stage, with a few coloured overhead spotlights to isolate the actor for a particular situation (like on the diving board). Nothing distracting us from David’s monologue, and from the video projection which was used as both as background to the actor and as stand-alone film footage.
The videos were of erupting volcanoes, and the people who study them. David had learned about the Yellowstone volcano, but that’s just one example. Beneath the placid Eden of The Holocene, the tectonic plates that support the continents are in constant motion, at about the speed that your fingernails grow – five centimetres a year, fifty metres in a thousand years, almost a kilometre during the last twelve thousand years. All driven by convection currents in the molten rock of the interior of the Earth. This is the engine-room of the planet, and at the spots where the lava reaches the surface we can get a glimpse of the unimaginable forces and pressures at work beneath us.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Some people are fascinated by this stuff, many -perhaps most – others aren’t. David is one of those who wants to see eruptions up close, but a lot of his story is about his failure to get near. He’s on a sightseeing trip to the Pacific Northwest of the US, to see Mount St. Helen’s (though partly because – "it was my mother’s name"), but the ‘prissy sixties queens’ in the car are only interested in gay bars in Portland where "the boys wear silver pouches" and David doesn’t have the forcefulness to make them wait for the mist to clear to get a view of the volcano. Just as at a later eruption, of Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii, he’s stuck, fifty miles south, with rich kids Britney and Sarah, who would rather stay in watching ‘Gone With The Wind’.
It’s not enough to want to see volcanoes, you have to want to see them ENOUGH. You have to have the emotional drive to do what it takes to get close. The videos (which are fabulous close-up footage of craters belching lava) are by a French couple, Maurice and Katia Krafft. They lived for volcanoes – they filmed the eruption of Eldfell (Mountain of fire) on Heimaey in Iceland, where, as Maurice said -"The explosion rose to a height of twenty-three kilometres. It was marvellous – one of the greatest moments of my life." ( Confession – I did wonder about the sexual symbolism of immense pillars of fire, and its effect on the Kraffts’ sex life.)
Wearing heat-proof silvered suits, treading carefully so as not to fall through the lava crust, they say that it’s a perpetual adventure – "Like being on the back of a large dragon that is moving". Katia doesn’t worry – "For me the danger is not important – I am afraid when I go in a car. Among the volcanoes I forget everything." And from Maurice again – "I am never afraid because I have seen so much (sic) eruptions in twenty-three years. Even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care." And in fact they both did die, the day after he said that, along with a number of other vulcanologists, in an explosion at Mt. Unzen, in Japan, in 1991.
Maurice and Katia died, but they died doing what they wanted. How many of us can say that we are truly doing what we want to do? At the end of the play, David dons his own (rather thinner) silver suit, preparing for a trip to Iceland in 2013. He’ll be travelling alone this time, and he’s – "Finally going to see one, up close". He recalled being six, dancing madly to Belinda Carlisle songs, and his first stirrings of adulthood (or his Superego) taking charge – "And then it dawned on me, you look like a fucking idiot. You should stop doing this… But before that happened, I felt totally and completely free. Maybe this is what Iceland will feel like".
I hoped that the trip would work out for David. Obviously the Icelandic volcanoes are symbolic of self-determination, of him becoming comfortable in his own skin. Possibly it’s about being comfortable with his sexual identity, too, although this theme wasn’t developed very far. He told us that during his breakdown he had fantasised about accompanying the Kraffts to see the Iceland eruption, and presumably seeing the volcanoes for real would be a measure of his increasing control over his life. It’s a measure of David’s performance, too, that I believed in him enough to care about his trip.
David Sheppeard’s performance was a little rushed at times, and some moments were hard to hear clearly, but he gave us a very believable portrait of a man trying to come to terms with his life. I’m also immensely grateful to David, and to director Emma Kilbey and video editor Duncan Jarvies, for pointing me towards Maurice and Katia Krafft. They were an inspired choice – their enthusiasm and zest for life providing a counterpoint to David’s lack of drive. The video footage was incredibly powerful, and gave another rich dimension to David’s journeys, both his physical wanderings and his interior odyssey. The play is about attaining a perspective on the world, and seeing further, and deeper, than the mundane everyday.