The Lowry, Salford.
18 October 2017.
Under glass, in the dark, spotlit, on display and moving. Clod Ensemble exhibit seven performers within glass jars and display cases.
On their previous visit to The Lowry, the company took us on a journey around the vast spaces of the main theatre with ‘An Anatomie in Four Quarters’ and reimagined that familiar auditorium through new surprising perspectives. Here, in an equally ambitious show they create something more intimate and challenging.
Arranged around a dark space, containers of various sizes are periodically lit up. Within each there is a performer. Some are tightly restricted inside their jars – you’d struggle to fit another person in there. Others have more room but their cases still have defined limits. A woman clutches a phone, another rests on a chaise longue, a man is in an office. Two performers are without possessions or a setting. All are on display and alone.
Lights flare up and dim – there is constant movement. Even in the darkness, out of sight, the performers are silently re-positioning within their containers. Visually it is astonishing. Within the clean lines of the gleaming glass holders – lives are pared back, the habitats tell us stories with minimal fuss – our focus is narrowed to the people. While Sarah Blenkinsop’s designs deliberately ration visual sensation, Paul Clark’s accompanying music is rich and overwhelming. Insistent strings, a dash of rock’n’roll – it sets the overall mood and creates a unifying thread to the dispersed performances. A recurring mix of dot dot dash dash can be heard – morse code beneath the waves of sound. Is someone in distress, are we receiving their signals?
Sarah Cameron is the only performer to speak. With her apron on, clutching a phone, her clipped clear voice is like something from another era. Her phone conversations (based on a poem from Alice Oswald) are macabre snippets of gruesome gossip about village life. She conjures up a vivid world of cruelty, violence, unnatural happenings and all seemingly on the verge of extinction. The ripeness and intensity of her language disturbs in the calm laboratory like conditions.
There is some comedic relief from Sam Coren’s office worker with his floppy anglepoise lamp and overly sticky Post It notes. However, as the simplest tasks become a nightmare to perform within his glass box there is little to laugh about and he silently pounds his fists on the low glass ceiling above his desk.
The choreography conveys a sense of confinement but also a developing adaption. Movements echo their restrictions, performers reach out and stretch in the directions where space allows. Their bodies also develop a relationship with the containers – steadying themselves against a wall, curling their back against contours or pawing at the out-of-reach view.
Only two sets of characters seem relaxed within their limited space. Slightly apart from the others, a set of twins doze fitfully together, content but curious about each other. Are they in a cot or the womb? A woman resting on rich green grass seems similarly at peace. She strokes the glass walls calmly and sensuously, but is she enjoying being outdoors on a summer’s day or is she at rest for eternity within her see through coffin?
There no doubting the plight of the performers but even at their most vulnerable they also exert a strange power over us. We are guided and led, we must come to them. While they are ‘safe’ within their cases we stumble around in the dark. The light they emit or attract draws us to them and helps us navigate the space. They are indifferent to us while we can not take our eyes off them.
Our relationship with them is ambiguous. At one point in the dark we hear them scratch, tap and push on the glass – it feels unnerving. As much as it feels like a science experiment or a museum exhibition – it also triggers associations with silent films, travelling freak shows or even GIFs on a mobile phone.
Look to long or ponder too deeply at your peril, this is a display designed to unsettle. Immaculately conceived and powerfully performed, ‘Under Glass’ possesses a fragile edgy beauty.