All other things being equal, this 65-minute installation with some live action, created by Complicité as part of the "John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet" season, would merely have been disappointing. But all other things were not equal.
At a few hours' notice, the press were warned off its first performance on Thursday; apparently director Simon McBurney felt it not yet ready to be seen by reviewers (although, oddly, fine for fully paying punters). At Saturday's final performance, conflicting publicised start times combined with the most shambolic box-office/front-of-house operation I can ever recall encountering in London, leaving hundreds of people thronged outside in the cold for over an hour. (Rule of thumb: if the waiting time is longer than the show, it's either Beckett or something is very wrong.) Not a word of explanation, let alone apology, was offered. So, admittedly, one wasn't in the most receptive of moods.
Inside the German Gym (built 150 years ago, and now sandwiched between the railway stations and building sites of King's Cross and St Pancras), Berger and Anne Michaels' meditation on railways, location and displacement in general proved only half-resonant. Conducted on tape for the first 40 minutes or so, it acknowledged the potential of the space without properly realising it. Berger's recorded voice explained to us the view out of a set of windows which had in fact been blocked in order to project modish, blurred, unspecifically evocative video footage on the wall.
A brief procession through a room piled with the belongings of migrants and another with forest duff underfoot, in which a video'd Michaels spoke of childhood memories of northern Ontario, took us back to the main space. At last, live performance. Sort of. Berger sat at a table and read (with surprisingly poor microphone technique), joined gradually by Michaels and a cast including McBurney, Juliet Stevenson, Paul Rhys and Susan Lynch. The text became a kind of vocal music; the actors, typescripts in hand, moved around a little, again unspecifically but evocatively. Finally a couple of aerial rope-dancers descended from the roof beams. Did Berger's and Michaels' words gain anything from such presentation? Not that I could discern. Did the piece work either as installation or performance? Again, I think not. Was it worth the ludicrous kerfuffle of getting in to see it? You must be joking.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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