Sulphur, written and directed by Sheila Ghelani, devised in collaboration with, and performed by Dora Jejey, Heather Uprichard and Jo Hellier, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Tuesday 4th April, 7.30pm
So, sulphur: an element, which in its pure form is not exactly friendly, toxic in fact, a yellow crystalline solid, highly volatile, inclined to spontaneously combust. (I’m sure I remember a television documentary about sulphur miners in Indonesia - the sulphur was on the surface, and they carried it in lumps down the side of what was a still active volcano, the ore itself was constantly catching fire, the flame invisible in daylight, but blue at night, which they had to try to extinguish. Between the fire fighting and the fact that the sulphur burnt their skin whenever they came in contact with it, the job was heroically unpleasant.)
But, as is related in Sulphur, sulphur is a necessary part of modern, indeed all, life, present in almost everything, tyres, plastics, explosives, us. It is an unwelcome part of pollution, most especially from diesel engines, and it is very much present in volcanoes, as evidenced by the miners in Indonesia. Compounds of sulphur spewing into the atmosphere are what grounded planes recently following an eruption in Iceland.
And a giant eruption in Indonesia in 1816 had a chilling effect on the entire planet, causing in Europe a ‘Year Without a Summer’ when crops failed, there was widespread famine and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (draw what parallels you will).
Sulphur is necessary to many industrial processes, especially the more dramatic and high profile, such as gunpowder. It is easy, imaginatively, to see why sulphur is connected with the less pleasant aspects of the industrial revolution.
Sulphur is, in essence, a metaphor for hell-fire. And, paradoxically, no-one would be alive without it.
Sulphur has become associated, in a cultural sense, with torture, retribution, anger, poison, disruption on an epic scale.
Can sulphur be rehabilitated? Can the central, crucial role it plays in our everyday lives be re-defined, reconfigured? Can it carry a new kind of metaphorical baggage? More Louis Vuitton than dark and Satanic?
Sheila Ghelani’s live art piece, Sulphur, touches on the industrial, the religious, the cultural, the imaginative to attempt a new kind of synthesis, a personal take on the chemical.
Can we feel sulphur, internally? And if we could, would it change how we feel about it?
Feeling something, as opposed, or related, to how we feel ‘about’ something has become the issue du jour, the hot button topic of today. Feelings, the literal, physical ones are very personal and difficult to express or communicate.
The other ‘feelings’, the sensations we often encourage when opinions become full body experiences, these are something else again, manifestations of imaginative intensity. There’s nothing like stoking rage to sell newspapers.
One of those hot button topics is gender. It is so galling, so frustrating that the opportunity to elect a woman President of the United States was lost, and for reasons so allied to ‘feelings’, to abstract, personal issues.
Just as sulphur carries double meanings, twin portmanteau, both a chemical fact and a metaphorical, imaginative implication, so gender becomes weighted with abstract meanings unconnected to reality.
These are very complex, very fraught issues and it’s right that experimental performance should investigate and reinterpret these connections and implications. The value of the metaphorical, the imaginative, the abstract is to examine our relationship to the concrete, the real, to each other.
The danger is that the imaginative and the real become confused, interchangeable, indefinite.
Sulphur is an element which can form compounds both useful and dangerous. Money, to take another example, is an abstract idea that can be both a physical fact and a type of personal interaction, that can be both useful and dangerous.
Gender is a physical fact, with much metaphorical baggage. Does the conflation with sulphur work as an artistic conceit? It’s a difficult, complex connection, not always clearly annunciated or thought through, but the great benison of live performance is that it can, just like sulphur, keep changing, keep re-forming, re-defining.