On Sunday, Third Person Theatre Company will perform Visions of Hell (part III)- the third in their series of improvised pieces in what has come to be known as Theatre of the Post-apocalypse.
The work is structured around a series of two-handed scenes/relationships – all of which happen in the same general locality as each other. There is often a separate ‘narrator’ figure, who is able to move between these relationships – observing, commenting, intervening. There is little emphasis on narrative and more focus on characterisation and relationship.
What is the reason for setting such improvised theatre in post-apocalyptic surroundings?
Setting the play in an unfamiliar environment forces the actors on stage to create the location. Gone is the kitchen sink, gone is the sherry decanter and gone is the water cooler. We are no longer in Hollyoaks.
And, rather cheekily, the kitchen sink, the sherry decanter and the water cooler may still exist in the play – but not as we know them! They are removed and recombined to make uncanny oxymorons: the kitchen sink might provide infinite amounts of washing up – like the ‘magic porridge pot’; we could be imprisoned inside the sherry decanter; the water cooler might mark someone’s grave.
This creation of the world is done using the vivid (and sometimes peculiar) imagination of the actors and must be combined with rich sense data. But also, it is a collaboration of the different impressions that the actors bring to the stage. For example, if actor A comes on stage into an environment where she thinks everything is now in a liquid state and actor B comes on stage believing that he is trapped in an infinite IKEA store, then both ideas must be communicated and accommodated and the ‘infinite IKEA’ will have to, somehow, be in a liquid form!
It is also the actors’ job to communicate the setting to the audience. Most audience members want to leave the theatre after the play feeling that they have been transported. But if the actors do nothing to colour the location, then the audience will always (subconsciously perhaps) assume that the play is set in a living room or in an office – or worse, in the black box of the theatre itself. But sharing the setting with the audience and other actors can be quite a tricky business. The narrator, of course, is free to describe things in what ever way he or she sees fit, but within the scenes, the actors must become skilled at describing the setting in a nuanced and almost incidental way, e.g. “The sand always gets in my eyes when the wind picks up like this.” or “Something ran over my face again last night; I think there are mice living in that trench of yours.”
Sometimes the setting can be described indirectly by longing for what is lost, e.g. “Do you remember water? The holidays we used to have? There was always water. I’d like to sit by a pool once more, reading a book. Then, when I’m too hot, I will fold the corner of my page and slide my body into the blue. So that every inch of my skin is covered in its kindness. I won’t swim at all, but drift – losing myself like an astronaut who has escaped his ship. And best of all, when I get out again, I will stand, and I will feel the prickles on my skin and I will shiver. I will bloody well shiver!”
The title ‘Visions of Hell’ can be somewhat misleading as there is no obligation for the actors to replicate or explore classical concepts of hell. (The title itself is an oblique reference to an amusing heckle offered by a BBC Radio3 audience member when the orchestra were underachieving!) Hell in a broader sense, rather than being a place under the ground where Beelzebub, Mammon and Moloch await the orders of Satan on the shores of an eternally burning lake, can often be defined as ‘living in a state of ignorance’. This is a more familiar world to us – where ego has replaced self-awareness; where our own subconscious (and sometimes conscious) stupidity can corrode the relationships that we hold most dearly. This is the stuff of the theatre.
There is rarely a collective response to such theatre. And the audience would do well not to try and achieve any kind of conscious understanding. When theatre like this is done well (and with improvisation, nothing is guaranteed!), the audience’s experience is often fragmented and interpretations can be varied and ambiguous – coming close, perhaps, to what Howard Barker calls the ‘Theatre of Catastrophe’.
And in cases where there is no script to light the way, such visions of hell (or visions of ignorance – or even, perhaps, visions of humanity) are best presented in settings where the relationships, the thinking and the emotions are removed from their familiar surroundings and stranded – to be examined – in some kind of bleak afterworld.
We are, after all, fish out of water.