revew: YESYESNONO – we were promised honey!
we were promised honey!/
writer/performer Sam Ward/
sound des Carmel Smickersgill/
lighting des David Doyle/
additional dir Atri Banerjee/
dramaturgy Deirdre McLaughlin & Craig Gilbert/
9-10 June 2023//
a machine for expanding a question
Don Paterson, in his 101 Sonnets:
‘The poem is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself; every device and trope, whether rhyme or metre, metaphor or anaphora, or any one of the thousand others, can be said to have a mnemonic function in addition to its structural or musical one. Poetry is therefore primarily a commemorative act – one of committing worthwhile events and thoughts and stories to memory: its elegiac tone is so universal and pervasive we’ve almost stopped hearing it.’
One of my first thoughts when reflecting on we were promised honey! was that there is something of the poem in the form of shows of its kind: short, concentrated, intimate. Both plays and poems inhabit a space of literary tension: the poem is the text on the page, and the act of reciting it which it represents; the play is the text/instructions of the performance, as well as the performance itself. We are generally expected to receive both a poem and a play in a single sitting, we surrender our time to them and allow them to propose we are inhabiting a different time, a different set of thoughts.
A play is not designed to be committed to memory (at least, not by the audience). A play is designed to be experienced. And in the experience of the play we are experiencing our own imaginations. Especially in we were promised honey!, which offers no set, nor escape from the faces of our fellow audience members opposite us, we are experiencing our own decision to sit in a room with strangers and imagine something into being. The trick is with theatre is that we are not being shown and told, we are being beckoned and asked. ‘Doesn’t this remind you of….?’ ‘Isn’t it strange that we’re…?’
Umberto Eco, in his The Narrative Structure of Ian Fleming, describes the prescriptive narrative structure of Fleming’s James Bond novels as a machine:
‘In fact, it is typical of the detective story, either of investigation or of action; there is no variation of deeds, but rather the repetition of a habitual scheme in which the reader can recognise something he has already seen and of which he has grown fond. Under the guise of a machine that produces information the detective story, on the contrary, produces redundancy; pretending to rouse the reader, in fact it reconfirms him in a sort of imaginative laziness, and creates escape not by narrating the unknown but the already known.’
I’m not for a minute suggesting such a pessimistic reading of Sam Ward’s theatre machine. Where the form of the Bond novels reinforces ‘imaginative laziness’, Ward’s formal decisions keep us awake and attentive. He brings audience members to the stage to place them in scenarios in fictional futures. Naturally, the rest of us are invited to imagine ourselves there, too.
Because our imagination is so required, the performer onstage never knows what we see. Instead they must float suggestions over to us, and hope we experience something similar to them. Likewise, we never know the extent of their expectations of us; the volunteer audience-performers aren’t certain what they are letting themselves in for. They make use of what faith they have, as Sam onstage has faith we will contribute, if not in the prescribed way, in a way that can move us forward.
So I propose that we were promised honey! is a play which is a machine for expanding a question.
When Sam coerces an audience member into the performance, there is a shifting of focus. Sam is no longer telling us a story – he is illustrating it, using a living assistant. I’ve seen Sam perform before; in his earlier shows, he has been casual, informal, chatty. His style here is deliberate, posed, artificial. There’s something of the Silicon Valley tech presentation about his manner. Rather than supported by his presence, we are a means to his end. He is clear – the interactions feel safe, supportive, but entirely on Sam’s terms. We are not unsafe when we enter the contract of the theatre space, but our lives are no longer entirely in our own hands. Perhaps what this emphasises is that our lives are always shared; we are always components in others’ lives and stories.
When Sam repeatedly allows us to decide whether the play continues, we are complicit in the ongoing life of the play. Each time, an audience member must speak, volunteer themselves into the next part of the play, which goes on hold until one of us speaks the words, ‘I would like to know what happens next.’ There is a risk, every time, that the thing we have created together here might die. The contract we form by being here and listening must be renewed. Such a contract is maintained in theatre when we choose to remain in our seats. We choose to remain captive, we allow our imagination to be exercised.
When we are told this story does not end well, very little is disturbed. For one thing, we’re in a theatre watching a play – in plays people get killed, get their eyeballs eaten, and worse. Violent stories, sad stories, tragic stories are worth telling. If for no other reason than we wish to hear them, feel their effects on us. And stories to which we know the ending still hold a kind of fascination. Like rewatching a favourite film, we do not learn anything about the story being told. It is the same fascinated compulsion with which one might, for example, watch a video of a plane crash. It is not enough to know the details. When we feel the story acting on us, we are taken somewhere we would not be taken if only exposed to a written synopsis. What we learn about in the end is ourselves.
Each of these moving parts is present in any play you care to mention. How do they expand that play’s question? My point is that our presence, in our individual estrangement, and in temporary community, always invites questions from us. We have decided to be here, together. Now, why is that?
we were promised honey! is very simple; Sam Ward is fascinated by the fatalistic final escapade of Richard Russell – a baggage handler who stole, flew, stunted and crashed a plane in August 2018. Was Russell’s death beautiful, artistic? How much of a plan did he have? Do we need to know about his life? Is it cruel to ask these questions? Why do we insist on summoning the ending of this show when we know where the story is going? The greatest way the question is expanded of course is by becoming larger than a single question; we share too many perspectives between us for it ever to be so simple. Sam Ward has prepared the space, the conditions, his question. And stories come out of us.