It would be fair to say that I have in the past regarded reviews which accuse a work of “resisting understanding”, advising audiences to simply let a performance “wash over them”, as something of a critical cop-out, indicative of the writer’s own poverty of insight as opposed to the complete theatrical opacity of what they have witnessed. Yet, whilst Mark Bruce’s Made in Heaven – the first production to play the Tobacco Factory Theatre as part of this year’s Bristol Mayfest – is far from impenetrable, it is certainly a piece of dance theatre from which each audience member will draw their own manifestly personal conclusions.
There is a plot of sorts. We are on an island, a dystopian American Old West with lurid seas and scorching shores (courtesy of lighting designer Guy Hoare), from which no man can escape. The heat is palpable, the prisoners are restless, and a Prairie Girl – every inch the Dorothy in blue gingham – is beginning to question the authority of her father, the Chief. What follows may walk the tightrope of the phantasmagorical, but somehow still manages to feel bitingly contemporary. One only wishes that the opening moments didn’t throw up the possibility that everything which follows is in fact a dream – a suggestion which does go some way to undercutting the surreality of the evening as a whole.
As performed by Eleanor Duval, the physical, sexual and psychological journey of the Prairie Girl represents the work’s strongest through-line; Duval is a relentlessly engaging dancer who charts her character’s development from ingénue to free spirit beautifully, alternately channelling naivety and oozing erotic salacity with breathtaking physical precision. If one were to focus purely on Duval – as many undoubtedly will – a strong case could be made for viewing Made in Heaven as a feminist narrative. Indeed, there can surely be few more striking images to demonstrate the female capacity for balancing disparate social roles than that of a young woman cradling an infant whilst refereeing a game of hockey in which the puck has been replaced by the severed head of a former oppressor.
But this is in fact only one strand of what is a richly textured work, which may or may not also take in the nature of authoritarianism and the potential stifling of creativity as a result of blind religious conformism. However fleeting and ephemeral such themes are, the very fact that Bruce can suggest them with little more than an eclectic, all-encompassing soundtrack and a vocabulary which is almost entirely physical is reason for applause. And the cast of six who bring that vocabulary to life ought to be lauded for doing so; even non-dancer Rick Bland – the only performer who speaks – inhabits his dual roles as the Chief and a maniacal nun with a bursting physicality that remains more memorable than the dialogue he delivers
Bruce’s unapologetic pursuit of what is clearly a singular vision will alienate some audience members; ‘meaning’ here is not so much implicit as subliminal. But this, far from meaning that one has to be a mind-reader, intellectual or aesthete to make any sense of proceedings, merely suggests that the best way to experience Made in Heaven is with an open mind. Give it your time, and I am quite happy to say I have very little idea of what you might find.
Made in Heaven plays the Tobacco Factory Theatre until 20 May before continuing on a UK tour.