“To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.” wrote Oscar Wilde in De Profundis during his imprisonment for gross indecency. This extract is one of the many poignant parts of his letter, in which Wilde reflects on his identity, relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and religion. And it is this letter which inspired the creation of At the Heart of Things, a dance puppetry piece which explores identity, sexuality and womanhood in a dystopian world.
The play commences with the projection of a beating heart to eerie violin music, and in a dance performance Lily (Piedad) slowly animates, eventually getting shot in a homophobic attack akin to the tragic Orlando nightclub shooting. From this point on the performance becomes a bit difficult to follow in terms of the linearity of the story as it is unclear whether we go backwards or forwards in time. But none the less it contains some poignant moments such as a multilingual exploration of what love is which effectively utilises dance to confront the constraints placed on women by society.
The audience is exposed to projected video clips throughout the performance to highlight the existence of sexism and homophobia in the dystopia. They see kitschy recycled clips of an antiquated documentary about LGBTQ spaces which is eye-wateringly politically incorrect, portrayals of femininity from the 60s which are exaggerated for the purpose of marketing in a way that today seems grotesque and footage from the news reporting of a shooting at a gay club. And gradually the audience comes to realise that the world that Nina (Depi) and Lily (Piedad) inhabit is not that far away from the one that they live in.
In the background, whilst Lily is trying to come to terms with her identity and the events that have taken place Oscar Wilde (Mayra) looms. Firstly, as a headless apparition, then as a writer. The audience watches him writing De Profundis next to Lily connecting with his words hundreds of years later. His presence both comforts and saddens the audience as we can take solace in Lily’s recognition of her plight in his work and the fact that this may aid to lessen her isolation. But it’s equally melancholic because despite the progress we have made in LGBTQ rights, the fact that his words ring so true means we have a long way to go. Both Piedad and Depi give solid performances, with their joint dances being some of the performance’s most enthralling. The puppeteer is also superb as Wilde, effortlessly replicating his mannerisms.
At the Heart of Things is an ambitious exploration of the LGBTQ experience that doesn’t quite deliver. Although Wilde is at the centre of the piece and is often on stage, engagement with his text is limited to clunkily placed quotations. And it would have been nice to see Lily’s engagement with his work depicted in a more physical way. Additionally the story itself was difficult to trace without knowledge of the synopsis, and key aspects of the plot including the dystopia were never really fleshed out. Nevertheless, it’s an innovative take on De Profundis and an arresting exploration of female sexuality and queer identity.
At the Heart of Things played at The Cockpit until 16th November.