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We’re living through the sixth mass extinction; a fact that is so huge yet somehow so invisible to most of us. But Bristol-based company, Mechanimal, led by solo performer Tom Bailey, have the antidote in their latest project, Vigil. Using projection, sound and physical theatre, Mechanimal complicates and sharply refocuses the vital relationship between humans and non-humans at the centre of this ecological crisis.
Bailey sits atop a perspex box filled with an anonymous pile of bones as some of the 26,000 names of extinct or threatened species from the IUCN’s Red List are projected onto a screen in unsteady rhythm. Bailey silently reads and responds to each one with a careful, physical imagining of how they may have moved, absorbing and articulating the ghosts of their lost existence.
The story and success of Bailey’s movement (directed by Philippa Hambly) ultimately lies in all of its failures. In its total physical commitment, Bailey’s choreography finds a dark humour and haunting realisation as it completely fails to capture the forgotten creatures with accuracy or even dignity; their essence is entirely lost in translation, and they never truly reach us. Whether beatboxing as the Epirus Dancing Grasshopper, or sheepishly stripping down as the Problematic Flasher, each of Bailey’s ridiculous anthropomorphisms acts as a comically critical reminder of how naive we are to exclusively envision the natural world through how it relates to human experience.
This digital edition of Vigil is a development of the original 2019 live version. Its evolution to screen embraces technological possibilities with economic and meditative flair, occasionally lifting Bailey’s body from the safety and control of the Pound Arts stage, and dropping him into wilder woodlands, beaches or fields found in the south-west. Jack Offord’s photographic direction here is stunning, finding a focus on the majesty of the natural environments that works to mystify Bailey as a guest, or even a prop, in these settings, effectively reversing the power dynamic between the human and the ecological established back in the theatre.
Faced with a long list of names, like news stories telling tragedy and atrocity in the same way over and over again, it would be easy for Vigil to quickly desensitise its audience to the sheer volume of extinction. But, whether through intensely restless developments in Andrew Cooke’s darkly atmospheric sound design, or moving introductions of props or spoken text, Mechanimal plays with form just creatively enough to keep the content poignant and surprising.
The performance lurches on with the authoritative click of the changing projector slides. The characterisation of this rapid technological force cleverly echoes the destructive charge of humanity itself, placing a forced empathy of stress on Bailey’s commemorative task. At times, his human capacity cannot chase the rate of disappearance, which translates urgently onto his face and breath.
Vigil offers no real solution to the mass extinction, but I struggle to take any real issue with that. The film offers a space of deep contemplation and mourning of which most of these obscure species have not had the privilege. All building to a touchingly triumphant poem from the perspective of the last Penitent Muscle, Vigil is a quietly constructive ceremony of remembrance that probes and re-centres humanity’s hierarchical perspective on loss.
“This is it,” says the muscle, looking down at the earth in all its beautiful stupidity. As Vigil so solemnly suggests, it shouldn’t take so much death for us to realise that this is all we have, but, at this point, to remember and bear witness is the very least we can do.