This is one of the most insane pieces of work I have ever seen. An entire ensemble, most of them over fifty, do cats cradle or upper-body physical theatre, trying not to break the frame. This can only be described as zoom hell. I fall in love with the chaos. A zoom ensemble in gallery setting is the backdrop for this performance and I am astounded at the adverse humour which fills this show. It is dark and hectic and hysterical.
The zoom ensemble do not entirely coordinate, or provide atmosphere. It seems to just dismantle and disorient the onstage action. If that is the intention, then it hits the mark. The performers on zoom are always engaged. The gallery of zoom portraits shadow the two tangible performers stranded in a milky wash.
The set is adorable. The dream-state created through the design is a stunning amalgamation of childish imagination and some girly abstract lockdown fever dream. Cables run down into a shrine where Persephone, played by Anna Braithwaite, sits as the chord of the cello vibrates. It feels like some surreal nightmare where everything is baby-pink and dollhouse sized. Persephone wears a quilted blanket dress which drapes over her lap down to the floor like the softest cloud. Her torso is a chessboard, the squares marking out the belly. These costumes allow for excellent shapes of the body stranded in space.
It turns out to be all about lockdown. In the prime of the rising second wave already, Covid-19 theatre is beginning to spring. I can only imagine this being a rising trend throughout the course of the next few years. Although beautifully done, the points are simple. Take Persephone sobbing “Happy Birthday”, clapping her hands and then bursting into tears. Braithwaite’s vocals are a little quiet in comparison to the unruly talent of the cellist Clare O’Connell. The staccato is immaculate and each burst of playing is fluid.
The overt abstraction of this performance has to be an artistic decision on part of Tania Holland Williams in favour of the comedy it brings. Perhaps it is the three-headed dog plush propped up on a wooden stool or the destruction of multiple pomegranates. The surrealism all adds up.
The explosion of gardening culture was perhaps the centrepiece of the imagery. It is soft and relatable in terms of the lockdown nightmare which hovers over Britain. O’Connell smiles and chimes, “Heaven is found in a wildflower.” O’Connell cheerfully monologues about how to read the weather when potting seeds while perched gently upon a stool in a blush nightgown.
The whole piece is a sleepy exploration of the creativity spurred on by a global stillness; “I’m going to bake a cake — take up Tai-chi”. It may be simple and absent of a clear political drive, but it is touching. Clutching pillows and squeezing them tight, Braithwaite calls out, “Is my audio switched on?” Mindfulness is thrust right into the heart of the performance, just as is it thrust into the minds of struggling individuals. It is markedly out of place and maintains an obscure emptiness well known to those with mental strife being asked to attempt self-help.
The piece allows itself to fall apart. Pomegranate juice drips down her arms in a delicate rouge stream. You cannot help but become tantalised by the chaos. At the end of the performance Persephone upturns and spills a fabric cornucopia of wool woven vines and lilacs which tumble in a burst of green as Tête-à-Tête asks, “If the dream is good, why wake?”
Persephone’s Dream is broadcasting online on 22 September. For more information, visit Tête à Tête online.