Review: Landscape (1989), VAULT Festival

Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet of Emergency Chorus are the creators and performers of the company’s second show as a New Diorama Graduate Emerging Company. Aiming to “address big questions” in “intimate ways”, Landscape (1989) takes on the topical theme of climate change.

Emergency Chorus have taken the UN’s recent warning that we have 12 years to stall the effects of climate change and save our planet as a jumping off point from which to explore the implications and emotions around the very slow-moving apocalypse we are collectively living through.

You would think that a cataclysm would be an unlikely moment for stopping and taking a deep breath, observe what is happening and assessing our emotional and intellectual reactions to it. And yet they make an astute point about how, contrary to how apocalypses are generally presented, the one we are actually living through is surreptitious, subtle: “the erosion of our planet is slow, and quiet. It doesn’t stop happening, and there’s no clear beginning, middle or end. It’s not dramatic.”

Landscape (1989) reflects this observation absolutely. Characterised by slow, deliberate movements and an acute sense of time passing while nothing really happens. Kulvichit and Potter-Sweet’s futile, repetitive pacing is reminiscent in some ways of Samuel Beckett’s Quad, though I’m not sure if this is intentional, as elsewhere their intellectualisms are laid much plainer. The piece’s title, for instance, a reference Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay ‘The End of History’, is explained in exhaustive detail. Rather than venturing too far into esoteric intellectualism, they instead err on the side of patronising.

Though there are several emotive moments in which their movements capture the powerlessness and inevitability, the injustice and absurdity of it all, the piece’s largest flaw is referenced even in the show notes: it is undramatic. Inevitably, this results in it not being very entertaining as a piece of theatre. Additionally, as a piece that sits uneasily somewhere between theatre and performance art, it comes across as rather worthy and a little didactic. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that theatre and performance art should address, challenge and provoke discussion around current issues; of which climate change is arguably the most urgent and pressing. But the profundity of this piece was largely lost on me, and I found myself at times quite bored.

But then again, the piece embraces the fact that the end of the world is, in fact, boring. Indeed, they don’t shy away from the fact that some audience members will find it boring, frustrating or difficult to engage with. In fact, they address it openly (during an eight-minute section of the show in which we watch a plate of mushrooms rotate inside a microwave).

Credit where its due, the piece does very much reflect its subject matter. It feels like a slow-moving event. There is a loose narrative to go with the climate-change narrative, of a pair of hikers making their way through the razed forests of Oregon and of the humungous fungal organism growing beneath it; a good fit for the earthy environment of The Vaults. The sound and lighting interact with the space intelligently, especially the sound of the trains overhead (which can be quite intrusive to other shows here).

Landscape (1989) makes for intelligent – if slightly didactic – theatre that is strikingly comfortable with its own stillness. In truth, I found it rather too sincere and earnest for my tastes, and in need of more of a sense of humour. Or perhaps my cynical, shrivelled up heart just shrinks away from anything that doesn’t feel the need to hide behind irony.

Landscape (1989) played at the VAULT Festival until 14t February. For more information, see the VAULT Festival website.