The dark arts, indeed! If ever there was an attempt by a couple of artists to take ownership of a colour – or at least an absence of colour – then Mikes Pearson and Brookes would be strong contenders with their new piece for National Theatre Wales, Storm 1: Nothing Remains the Same. The irony of the title of course, is that there is nothing to see here, apart from a burning tree some way through part two. The audience are sunk into a suffocating vantablack, and the story is injected into the imagination via headphones. Storm 1 is immersive, there’s no doubt about it; but is it theatre?
It is no slip of concept, or even (we must assume) the pressures of budget constraints, that has meant the usually visually daring Pearson and Brookes have decided to turn the lights off. The idea, which is both bold and somewhat mischievous, is visually daring as well, of course; it’s about as powerful a visual statement as you can make. That Storm 1 leaves you asking more questions about its concept and execution than it does about any of the profound conundrums it spurts up in its narrative is no small problem. The truth is that by the end, very little of the story remains, only the memory of the blackness.
The attempt to focus the imagination is an admirable one – and much of what happens in Storm 1 can be marked down as “honourable failure” – but as time moves on, it is clear this focus is not be rewarded. There is no real catharsis, no revelation, no climax. Just the black canvas. Artistically, the idea of the void is a rich one, not an empty one. It is all very well to play with an idea, but it needs a deeper plunge of the dagger to be more than just a theme park ride. Georges Perec’s 1969 detective novel A Void, famously contains no letter “e” (quite a feat in the original French, but spare a thought for its English translator), and for the first few pages the reader marvels at the cheeky craftsmanship of it all; but after ten pages, twenty pages, the reader becomes starved of oxygen, the airlessness created by the rubbing out of that ubiquitous vowel feeds mercilessly into the suffocating paranoia of the narrative. Storm 1, however, excites initially, the powerful darkness drawing us in to pre-Big Bang nothingness, but after some time, as the narrative describes all sorts of cosmic drama, from the birth of the universe to the birth of gods and men, the darkness remains. There is no deliverance from it until the burning tree, an image that amounts to little more than a sleight-of-hand, distracting a blinking audience for a moment from the nothingness.
Still this might have worked had Pearson’s narration been on point. His timbre is marvellous – there is no-one complaining in having him whisper in your ear for forty minutes – but tonally the script waves from engaged Biblicalese, bumpy vernacular, and pre-enlightenment hifalutin. Storm 1 takes very roughly the first two books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as its template, cramming in origin myths and floods and Edens too, and it might have done better to have used elements of Charles Martin’s peerless translation. Where the Storm 1 script fails most pointedly is in attempts to capture the rambunctiousness of Ovid. Every time Pearson’s narration slips from the gargantuan posing of celestial verse into something more irreverent and conversational, it jars.
But Pearson is never anything less than dedicated. His voice carries much weight. The normally wonderful Aimee Ffion-Edwards, however, is less convincing as the narrator of the second half. Her voice offers a pleasing contrast, a bit of light to Pearson’s antediluvian seriousness, but it also lacks a certain conviction. Edwards improves as she goes on, but the suspicion, amidst a few mispronounced words and misplaced emphasis, that a couple more runs in the recording booth and she would have nailed it.
And so back to the burning tree, unveiled like a god itself in the final quarter, after several million years in the darkness, it is like a raindrop in a draught. But anyone dying of thirst will tell you a raindrop will not do; and so the fire burns and Edwards continues her (frankly, not all that interesting) narration, and there you have it. Pearson and Brookes made their bold decision to immerse the audience in darkness, but then failed to really get much further than that, they failed to own the darkness.
National Theatre Wales, throughout its first decade, has continually pushed the boundaries and asked what exactly is theatre? It has failed probably more times than it has succeeded (as is the norm for a national theatre, it should be said), but we should be fiercely proud (and indeed protective) of the fact we have a national institution that pays no lip service to conservative views of art and expression. Is Storm 1 a piece of theatre? And if it is, how are we defining theatre? How is NTW expecting us to define theatre? Is theatre now just anything put on in front of a captured audience? Where is the line? Does there even have to be a line? Well, yes there does have to be a line. Having lines is not restrictive, it is not the OCD of the gatekeepers of culture. Demarcation helps us know what we’re doing, and they help us figure out where we’re going. Is Storm 1 theatre? Well, just because it was in a big empty space and forces us to stare at a burning tree for ten minutes still doesn’t make it much more than an audiobook, I’m afraid.
Storm 1 is the first part of Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes six-part Storm Cycle for NTW, and is at Pafiliwn Bont Pontrhydfendigaid, Ceredigion until February 17th.
(Image: Mark Douet)