It was exhilarating to be inside a theatre building again, feeling the palpable buzz that spreads through an audience before a performance. It was a surprise to be seated on the stage, albeit in single chairs at intervals, facing the performance space. Leeds Playhouse, once again, handles the new social distancing measures unobtrusively and with deft hands.
Dead and Wake is part of their Connecting Voices project, inspired by, written and rehearsed in lockdown. Staged by Leeds Playhouse in collaboration with Opera North and performers, this project is a response to the events of the last six months and uses new and classic work to celebrate the power of the human voice.
Creator of Dead and Wake, Khadijah Ibrahiim, has fashioned a dark, hushed atmosphere for the audience. It’s almost as if we enter a candle-lit, sacred space and the shift in mood gives some of us the giggles.
An all-female ensemble cast wear long flowing dresses in either black or white, with headscarves tied elegantly. All command the stage in turn, sharing either songs or pieces of spoken word. I enjoy the songs most – the feeling of ritual which emanates through the space is both fascinating and respectful.
The piece discusses Jamaican beliefs on death, rebirth and the transitory nature of life. Though ‘Nine Night’ is mentioned, and certain actions from the funerary custom are performed, I would like more focus on the process itself and the meaning of each action. It’s clear this piece is acutely personal to Ibrahiim, who tells her origin story in family-tree form from the early eighteen-hundreds. Each performer who speaks, mentions their relationship to their own identity; the exploitation that their ancestors suffered, and their unique cultural makeup now.
Christian symbols are manifold, and sit alongside bottles of Jamaican rum – the mix of old with new, technology with tradition highlights the diverse nature of Caribbean culture. Voiceover, vox pop recording and soundscapes are central to the piece, as is music performed live by the cast. Though I appreciate the necessity to reinforce the cyclical understanding of death, I feel as if the repetition of similar notions and recordings is overplaying it somewhat. The piece has charm and moments of real poignancy but I feel that it spends too much time going over the same ground. Even the wing-like movement the cast use to swish their skirts grows wearisome, and I worry about the two central cast members becoming dizzy they spend so much time rotating.
It’s evident that not enough theatre has been made about these customs and Dead And Wake could have been a seminal work, had its simultaneous vagueness and duplication not gotten in the way. I look forward to seeing more of Ibrahim’s work in future, and hope I get the resolution I crave.
Connecting Voices: Dead and Wake played between 2 and 17 Oct 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. For more information, see Leeds Playhouse website.