As a child, my backyard was 18 holes of a golf course, as my parents ran the accompanying bar and restaurant. In the long summer months I’d find myself tangled in the reeds by the pond, planting stinging nettles by the flag poles and watching the snails as they slithered across the patio slabs. My home was not the bungalow next to the restaurant but the rolling greens of carefully mown grass that seemed to stretch for miles. Above Me The Wide Blue Sky is a memory-inducing performance-installation from boundary-crossing theatre company Fevered Sleep. Taking interviews with hundreds of people conducted by Artistic Directors David Harradine and Sam Butler over the past year, the performance constructs a landscape out of memories of home, from the past to the present day.
Lacking a narrative structure and performed in just 45 minutes, the experience of this piece is hard to put into words. Just when you think you have somehow managed to grasp the floating mass of words, images and sounds, the piece slips between your fingers and drifts into the distance. It is an experience where the mind wanders, where the repetition of text, set against the dream-like rhythm of music and birds tweeting, could easily send you to sleep. This feels okay, though, because to sit and immerse yourself within this ‘installation piece’, and in turn to let it seep in and absorb some part of you, is part of the experience.
For me, Above Me The Wide Blue Sky evoked memories of my childhood on the golf course, with the stinging nettles and snails. The text, performed by Laura Cubitt, is like a series of half-caught whispers and reflections, scattered and fragmented. Using the memories of those interviewed, Cubitt picks and nurtures an image for the audience. The words that form these images are peppered with warming phrases and form a poetic flow, conjuring up the richness of the countryside. Then Cubitt reverses the images and suddenly it is as if all the warmth and greenness of the country is rotting and withering beneath another, decidedly human, force. Above Me The Wide Blue Sky held, for me, a subtle allusion to humans destroying the earth, nature somehow fading at the hands of technology.
The design (Ali Beale) of the piece makes it an incredibly static performance but like the clouds that float and drift on the 360 degree projections suspended behind the audience, the piece changes slowly and subtly. It’s why it works so well within a 45 minute structure: anything more and it would be tiring, but that’s not to say it’s an easy experience. The actual experiencing the piece, with all its fragility and gentleness would, I’m sure, kill some people. There’s no climax and no conflict; there’s images and words, notions and motions. It’s a poem, an installation, a cloud drifting and we choose the shapes. It is what we want it to be. For me, it’s a memory of childhood and our connection with the outdoors, but that’s only just scraping the surface. It’s haunting, almost.
I imagine that as I sit here now in my home, back at the Young Vic the glow of the lights, the hum of the music and the video projection are continuing long into the night, shifting and reforming but somehow remaining the same. Like nature itself, this piece feels connected and rooted to the ground beneath our feet, but also somehow otherworldly. To experience it is to understand by getting lost within it. A poetic joy or a poetic nightmare.