HOME Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 3rd November, 2021
“…. but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”Benjamin Franklin, 1789.
And just imagine if both of those certainties came together in one, indescribably grim experience?
Antler Theatre’s Civilisation is an elegant and curiously amusing scrutinisation of the appalling agony of both. On stage a young, somber woman (Sophie Steer) attempts to make a phone call to HMRC. It’s clear that something sad has happened: she came on stage dressed in black; there are big bouquets of flowers everywhere.
And then there is the mute silence. She doesn’t say much, she doesn’t look as if she wants to talk about it, whatever it was. Someone should probably make this phone call for her.
A phone call to HMRC is not what you need at any time – it is, in essence, a kind of death in itself. They do not want you to contact them, the automated handler sends you round in circles, their presumption is that you’ll eventually just go away. Whatever issue you have, it will just disappear if they ignore you for long enough.
Could the same be true of grief? Maybe if you can ignore it, will it just go away??
On stage, Sad Sophie goes through her everyday motions: drying her hair; frying an egg; watching pornography. These are her attempts to defeat grief using the weaponry of mundane banality. Her arsenal is packed full of normcore armaments – there are plenty of reality TV videos to be watched; letters to be opened; well-meaning friends to be hosted.
Life is carrying on. It has to, doesn’t it?
Where Civilisation really takes off is what goes on around this gently unfurling spectacle of sadness. Seeded in amongst the conventional performance methodology are strong, emotionally violent forays into feeling itself.
These theatrical side steps are turbulent, arguably they do nothing for Sad Sophie and her predicament but for the audience they serve to soothe and heal.
Joining Sad Sophie on stage are three elegant and nimble sprites (Emily Thompson-Smith, Brannon Yau, Imogen Alvares). These prancing, dancing entities are genuine, 1990s computer-game sprites – non-static elements that move independently of the fixed background.
Theatrically they are ill-defined and thus give this entire show its trademark air of Antler Theatre intrigue. They move: sometimes in unison, sometimes individually; their dances are robotic yet also organic. They fleet-footedly prance around the stage exactly as sprites should do.
They are here, they are there, they are everywhere. Maybe they represent the omnipresent grief that plagues Sad Sophie?
They are welcome as a distraction from seeing Sad Sophie suffering, but they’re also quite annoying in their implicit mysteriousness.
These sprites represent something new from the audience’s perspective. They cannot be readily and easily equated to anything that theatre has delivered before. Just as in the charming 2-D computer games of the 1990s, these sprites could be fun to play around with, it feels like there’s more to them which needs exploring properly.
These sprites have just turned up: they’re in the foreground, in the background, stage left, stage right – they are a metaphor for grief, they’re just everywhere at all times and can’t be rationalised.
Civilisation first made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. There, the performance space was much more compact, the resultant show carried a far punchier energy density. Stretched out on the far more expansive platform that is HOME’s Theatre One, that same artistic energy is certainly still there, reduced in density but the extra distances add something else in the form of a chance to literally see a wider picture, perhaps contemplate the big questions from a much wider angle.
What’s definitely an improvement in this run at HOME Theatre is the viewing angle, specifically watching this from the performer’s “ground level” down in the stalls. This raising of the stage / lowering of the audience seems to create a far more prominent spectacle – Sad Sophie and The Sprites tell a more powerful story when the audience isn’t hunched around them.
Sad Sophie’s grief is mostly impenetrable: we know nothing; we learn nothing about The One she grieves over – hence, for the audience, this feels more like an interpretation of loss, rather than grief.
What is it that she’s lost? It feels easier to contemplate the things that she has lost. Things can be physical, or spiritual maybe. Sophie will never be able to explain the meaning of the person that she lost as only she uniquely knows them in the way that she does. Civilisation chops the pain up by presenting the things that are lost: the reminders that trigger her, such as her pruning the flowers, her changing the bed sheets, the way she folds up items of clothing.
On the whole, Civilisation moves slowly and lethargically, but in a nice way. The show is a reflection on grief and loss, it has to be slow; yet the three sprightly dancers are anything but. They are abundant in energy, movement, freedom – they release trapped pain, they are a valve, an outlet.
When they occasionally do stop moving on stage it feels wrong. Something has gone wrong. While they move it feels as though it might just all be okay. They should never stop moving.
Civilisation is a work of art. Beautifully presented, performed, and very cleverly devised, this is an innovative exploration of themery that hundreds of other shows have touched upon, but few have ingeniously settled into the niche that this occupies.
Photography: Alex Brenner