Michael Bartholomew-Biggs draws together his impressions of a novel multi-media show that combines poetry music and film.
The world premiere of City on Fire took place at the Dugdale Theatre, Enfield last night, April 16th – for one night only. But pay attention to what follows because the show will be staged again, at the same venue, on Friday June 17th.
City on Fire is a multi-media piece featuring music by Alastair Gavin, film by George Gavin and the words and voices of four poets: Hannah Lowe, Cheryl Moskowitz, Alan Murray and Richard Price. The production describes itself as “a complex and nuanced picture of city life”, which is a pretty fair summary of what it offers. Back-projected shots of London streets and a (mostly) subdued electronic score underpin poems from four readers who are positioned at four corners of the stage. Their voices/poems are distinct and separate yet they flow together one after another (without introductions of any kind) and are held in tension by the visuals and the music. Just occasionally (but powerfully when it does happen) the voices interrupt one another or say a single line in unison. Even less frequently (but even more strikingly) some poems are part-sung as well as being spoken. The overall effect is to create a mood rather than a narrative; but that mood is a compelling and engaging one – chiefly involving regret, disappointment and broken communication. Poem titles (it would have been delightful but impractical to have transcripts of the text) such as ‘Waking without you’ and ‘Those long car silences’ offer a suggestion of the prevailing tone. Unanswered calls are made from phone boxes in empty streets, late night travellers observe mice (or are they rats?) scurrying about on train tracks, car radios fade as couples speed down a motorway. These low-key glimpses of unfinished stories are occasionally interrupted by more dramatic narratives – for instance, a near-fatal accident at the end of a new year party. It is fair to say that there is rarely a dull moment. Interestingly, the poets’ different voices and styles work so well together that it would be inappropriate (and also quite difficult) to single out any one of them for special comment. Verbally this feels very much like an ensemble piece.
In this multi-media performance it was interesting for me to see which medium made the strongest claim on my attention. As someone whose business is mainly words, I was surprised to find that the visuals played a stronger role than I had expected. I was drawn in, for instance, by an endless pursuit of a number 91 bus or by repeated shots of movement along an undulating road in which each repeat took us a little further until, at last, we just glimpsed what lay beyond the furthermost rise. The combination of this visual input with the aural images provided by the poets made me think of the sound and video installations of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff. Oddly enough the Janet Cardiff piece that comes most strongly to mind is “The Missing Voice (Case Study B)” which doesn’t use film at all but is an audio tour in which participants are issued with headphones and are guided through the streets of Whitechapel by the voice of an enigmatic narrator. At times, George Gavin’s film was so immersive that it reminded me of this very physical guided-walk experience, with the voice in my ears prompting my eye to visit and revisit details of the urban scene in front of me to seek their significance in the light of the story I was being told.
Alastair Gavin’s electronic music comes to the foreground in the section entitled ‘Fire’ which commemorates the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. From the centre of the stage, Gavin steadily builds a musical conflagration of sharp phrases like flickering flames against a layered background suggesting underlying combustion and structural collapse. At the height of this accoustic blaze the sound level drops as the poets enter with poems whose content and language forms are more seventeenth-century than contemporary and hence unlike those in the rest of the piece. Indeed the only mild reservation that I have about the show is that its choice of title seems to be based on this single rather untypical “Fire of London” item. As a fellow audience member rather astutely remarked after the performance, the sombre nature of much of the material might have been better matched by the title “City of Fire & Ashes”. This small caveat aside, however, it needs to be said that this is a well-staged, well-performed and highly original piece of work. Make a note in your diaries now about its second airing on June 17th!