Adrift is, I would be willing to bet, one of the more unusual shows on offer this week. Taking place in a public walkway under the streets of South Kensington, the cavernous space is filled with the echoes and reverberations of refugee voices, timed to coincide with World Refugee Day on 20 June. It is a piece which defies easy categorisation, being part community art, part political performance piece and part orchestral experimentation.
The show started without fanfare. A procession of black-clad figures emerged and split into three groups. Each raised their voices in a wordless ululation, and, modulating the tone of the sound as they went, began to drift slowly in opposite directions down the tunnel. The figures passed out of earshot, their voices fading, before crying out in fresh urgency and making their way back to the small, but captivated audience.
The work unites members of a Public Health England initiative called Sing to Live, Live to Sing, which promotes singing as a social and psychologically positive activity. The effect was startling and at times unnerving. Taking as its inspiration the immigrant experience, the work makes their experiences into a visual, aural and spatial metaphor. It is both a testament to the experience of those on outside and a comment on how we treat those on the borders of our personal world.
The mixing of the difference voices, deliberately wordless, but still with coherent form, is strange to the audiences’ ear, perhaps reflecting our prejudicial view of immigrants as a single mass. Their voices and bodies often mix with passers-by and interact with ambient noise, thus blurring the boundaries between performers and public. Most striking of all is the way in which movement is made part of the performance. As the groups make their way to the peripheries of our awareness, slipping in and out of our perception, this perhaps mimics the ways in which the plight of immigrants appears and fades from our minds with the 24-hour news cycle.
The voices then gave way to a string quartet, performing a piece composed by Catherine Lamb. It is atonal in style, and evokes the same cacophonous, overpowering feeling that the previous performance did. The two, however, felt disconnected and I wondered if there was a way to bring together these two elements, the community and the London Contemporary Orchestra, in a greater show of unity.
All in all, Adrift was the best kind of public theatre: inclusive, evocative, and not afraid of challenging our preconceptions.
Adrift is played in South Kensington on 20 June. For more information, see the South Kensington borough website.