Brighton Fringe 2017
Consciousness. Where does it arise from? Since we don’t believe in God, we know that it can only emerge from an arrangement of atoms. But the Universe itself is also an arrangement of atoms – could the Universe be conscious? Can the Universe be seen as a nervous system?
Although the patterns or structure may be different, both systems are arrangements of the same type of atoms. Therefore, we must consider the possibility that not only the brain, but any material system, such as the Universe as a whole, has a consciousness, an inner life. The planets, the stars, the galaxy clusters are the image of a cosmic nervous system – exactly the same way that the human brain is the image or the physical representation of a person’s inner life.
But then there are forces we do not yet understand – an additional factor other than just gravity is holding the galaxies together. We call it ‘Dark Matter’, but at present it is as unknowable as God.
Those words are Alfredo’s, part of a book he wrote years ago as a Professor of Astrophysics. But he’s very old now, he’s in a care home and he’s suffering from dementia. This stuff must still be resonating in his memory, though, and as we heard his words on a slightly echoing sound track we could see his thoughts projected onto a screen at the back of the Rialto stage.
Coloured liquid, drips falling into a tank of water, spreading out into yellow swirling clouds that could have been galaxies, or the inside of a womb. Then smaller red droplets, more viscous, dropped in and descending gently through the yellow. Beautiful piano music over the words. Minimalist, repetitive – like a clockwork musical box.
And a sand table. Lit from below, so that light flooded through between the particles of matter – hugely magnified on the video screen. Fingers were making patterns, holes, swirls in the surface of the sand. They had eliminated any sense of scale – we could have been looking at neurons in a human brain, or the clusters of galaxies that form the large-scale structure of the Universe.
It was beautifully done. A tower of glass shelves at one corner of the stage, with several operators handling the liquids and sand, using a small video camera to produce the close-up views that we saw projected huge. A collaboration of many hands, each working on a different part, synchronised together to create something living.
It was the same with Alfredo. He’s about four feet tall, a little old man in his eighties, and it took three puppeteers to bring him to life. Two women moved his arms and legs, and a man moved his head. So lifelike – constantly turning this way and that as he talked to us in the audience, and to his carer in the home. Alfredo was born in Italy, so the man did his voice in a gruff, heavily-accented English – and one of the women produced the higher pitched piping words of Alfredo as a boy.
His mother and father called him Alfredo – when we see them on the stage their faces are hidden by stocking masks (because he can’t remember their features any more?) and they’re concerned that he’s such a bookworm. But his nurse in the care home calls him Alfie – see how we use the diminutive form when we make the assumption that someone is no longer competent. She’s called Ellen, and she’s from Russia – one of the immigrant multitudes who keep our health services going.
But his dementia makes Alfie jump back and forth in his life. Ellen leaves the stage, loses her green nurse’s jacket, and reappears seconds later clad in a red shawl as Helen, his great love from decades before. Helen worked selling fruit, and Alfie remembers their first meeting, bumping into her and spilling apples everywhere. Sofia Calmicova really is Russian, and as Helen she sat nestled on the floor with Alfredo as he explained his theories of Dark Matter to her – and to us in the audience… How do we best understand the Universe? “I can see the beauty of it”, says Helen. “I need figures, numbers”, replies Alfredo.
Then she’s Ellen the care assistant again, fretting over Alfie, trying to get him to take his medication while he imagines himself to be at a scientific conference, years before. She’s not married, and as he attempts to describe the Universe to her, she responds – “My Universe is this place”. It’s Alfie’s too, now, of course. “Where do the stars go when they die?”, Ellen asks him. “A good question”, he answers. As he ponders that one; tiny bright lights – blue, red, white, green – dance in the air above, held by the black-garbed puppeteers. The lights had first appeared alongside the video sequence, and I’d seen them as atoms, swinging around each other and coming closer to form molecules. Now I saw them as stars. It’s all just a matter of relative scale.
‘Dark Matter’ has physical theatre, as well. When Alfredo travels to London as a student, the puppeteers arranged themselves to form an angular set of shapes, and Sofia Calmicova (she’d been his mother, too) moved a small railway engine up and over arms and shoulders, as the train crossed the Alps, heading north. Later, during a Helen episode, Calmicova became a tree, stiffening into immobility with her arms outstretched upwards to become branches. Alfredo was able to climb up her easily (with a little help …)
The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world. Entropy, that gradual degradation of information towards chaos, was eating away at Alfie’s memory. Old newscasts on the radio kept breaking up into static, losing and re-finding a signal. The stage occasionally bathed in flickering blue light.
At the end, as he died, stretched out on the floor, Alfie turned his head to look his puppeteer directly in the face. The first time he’d done that. It felt very tender, but also it was as if Alfie had somehow come to realise his situation – as a puppet. Alfredo didn’t believe in God, but at the very end he came to understand that there was something outside of him.
As he lay still, there was one white light, then a blue as well, hovering over him and finally floating up and off – like Alfredo’s soul. I was in tears.