revew: Graeae – The Solid Life of Sugar Water
The Solid Life of Sugar Water/
by Jack Thorne/
dir Amit Sharma/
design Lily Arnold/
prod Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth/
The Royal Exchange/
9-13 Feb 2016//
(or: on joying in suffering)
You ever had something you’ve said repeated back to you and you wonder what your head was even doing to produce those words?
‘You ever been sat up in bed, unable to sleep, reading a book or just staring ahead, and had a total loss of perspective? The sensation that the end of your arms could be miles away, the walls and ceiling are practically touching you, you’re not entirely certain which way gravity is pulling but you seem stuck to the bed for some reason. If you stop paying attention, certain parts of your brain can play tricks on themselves. Brains do a lot of things without our asking.’
Maybe you were thinking aloud, but not really thinking. Like automatic speech without pressing the starting switch. Your mouth working on one thing and your brain on another. It’s a lot like that reading back things I’ve written in reviews, or notebooks, and it causes a sort of collapse of time – because reading something unfamiliar Is like thinking it for the first time but I’ve already written these things.
Which can lead me to wonder if I’m actually thinking when I’m writing a review or just translating some sort of visceral experience that my hands have learned to respond to.
So for a couple months nearly I’ve been writing about shows twice when I’ve felt like I’ve had something extra (and usually less like a ‘review’) to say about a piece of theatre. I write for Exeunt and I’ve v recently started writing for The Stage. I’ve been doing these reviews for a while now and I’m writing them increasingly rapidly, cause of practice, but increasingly because I want to get the reviews I have to write out of the way so’s I can write stuff like this revew, which I want to write.* Leaving the Royal Exchange after seeing The Solid Life of Sugar Water, my immediate thoughts were about how I would write about the show after writing my review for Exeunt.**
Leaving the Royal Exchange after seeing The Solid Life of Sugar Water, my immediate thoughts were about how enjoyable, how exciting and invigorating I’d found such a horrid story. And I wondered what that said about me.** Obviously it wasn’t the subject matter that excited me and I knew that – it was the performances, the script, the design. But it got me thinking, it’s a bit sick, all this theatre, isn’t it? I did a workshop with Ellie Harrison† yesterday and she mentioned a comment someone had made to her about one-to-one performance, that it’s manipulative. And I’m thinking of course it’s manipulative – all theatre’s manipulative, right?
What it really says about me is that I enjoy being manipulated, in that specific way that theatre manipulates us. In that specific way that that particular production manipulated me. And the fact I bought the script says I’m interested in the process of manipulation and want to revisit it, maybe understand it better. All the rev(i)ews I ever write, maybe that’s what I’m actually up to. Revisiting, revising, reliving, rethinking this haunted spectral echoed product we call a piece of theatre, a piece of art.
I think, if all I write about a given show is essentially me reacting to a liminal, embodied experience, then all these reviews or revews really say is ‘James Varney saw [insert play here]’.
And yes, there’s consent so does it really count as manipulation at all? Is us going to see a piece of theatre predicated on the idea that we don’t know what we’re letting ourselves in for?
I had a long conversation recently with a friend about the knowledge argument in philosophy and why all these daft philosophers seem to be so hung up on language. Alice and Phil, in Sugar Water suffer language: ‘antepartum haemorrhage’ is far more an incommunicable horror than it is a pair of words bearing any real meaning. Phil and Alice’s response to it is more sensing than understanding. Their tortured, and ecstatic existence in time is not brought any meaning or sense by being communicated to us – Phil shouts ‘NOW. NOW.’ In the hospital and it’s more about the sense of bellowing than meaning anything. It is a cry of pain and volume, of sensation, not communication. Why does anything in this play happen? Because it is fixed there, on the page, on the stage. What use is understanding in the face of love and death and loss and pain? All we can do is experience it.
So I guess writing a rev(i)ew is neither understanding nor translating a piece of theatre, In fact, writing a rev(i)ew is neither sufficient nor necessary, but it still doesn’t feel like nothing. Living, in a linear way or in fractured traumatic dream isn’t nothing. My reviews and revews are both illusions of different kinds – different lies to ease the passing of an experience in a dark room with strangers and a show. As if theatre were a form of trauma, writing a form of therapy (or vice-versa).
What I took from Sugar Water is that our lives are strings of reactions that we shove meaning into like jam into a broken pocketwatch. In the old testament, Samson finds honey in the belly of a lion, and it’s as if the people writing Judges were issuing a challenge – ‘Ha! Live by THAT!’ Why should we pretend a miscarriage makes any more sense than your wife turning into a pillar of salt? Why do we have this obsession with pinning down meaning when we’ve been sat in a room for an hour and a half weeping at the movement and speech of two actors on a stage?
One more note and I’ll bugger off. Graeae are a totally ace theatre company and I hope sincerely one day they won’t need to exist anymore. †† I’ve written well over 1600 words about this show and I’ve not signposted the disabilities of the actors. I’d like to be in a world where it’s not important whether a company of actors have any disabilities or not. This is not that world. I didn’t want to dwell on it but suffice to say Graeae are doing important work making theatre that is accessible and working with artists who are usually shut out of spaces for the way their bodies work. In reflection, best practice from now on is probably to mention when an actor is disabled until such time as it’d be useless information because that happens all the time. Here’s to that day.
*Not to say I don’t want to write the ‘proper’ reviews – they’re incredibly valuable to me and in some ways I couldn’t write the revews without writing the reviews first.
**(ok my immediate thought was ‘I’d like to buy the script’ then I had to run across to the cashpoint on the side of Sainsbury’s and back’ but sh)
†The Grief Series Ellie Harrison – there are many Ellie Harrisons.
††For now they’re vital – so y’all better cherish them.