Radical in a Quite Unexpected and Exciting Way

BLUETS, Drama & Performance Final Year Performance Project, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), University of Sussex, Friday, 9th December 2016, 7.30pm

The Attenborough Centre and the Sussex Final Year Drama students’ projects (a mouthful I know) are turning out to constitute a pretty special partnership (different students each year of course and maybe 2 swallows (two final year projects) don’t necessarily make a summer) but there’s definitely something happening that is just a bit out of the ordinary. Maybe it’s the theatre, certainly the performance space, the auditorium, is inspiring, wonderful really. And not just the theatre, the whole building, its location, its surroundings, there’s something in it which one way or another says anything is possible. Always a joy to go there. Hard to imagine a better building, in total, for what it’s meant to achieve.

Last year, The Three Sisters; the students performed as though they were doing it for the first time. As if it had never been done before. Ever. Chekhov could have been sitting in the audience. And they added some speeches of their own. And it worked. Never had it been so clear that those characters believed that life was only going to get worse. That the promise of progress was a sham.

This year, a prose poem; an answer of sorts to a Philosophical treatise, on the colour blue of all things. Could there be a more impossible task to set before a graduating class?

What they achieved was surprising in both conception and execution, somehow larger than the sum of its parts, a kind of synecdoche Sussex University: down left was an academic at her desk, trying to get her American accent right, practicing her delivery; behind her a kind of campus radio station, various students broadcasting the text in question, along with an accompanist on cello; up right was a hospital bed, the teaching hospital, also up right a laboratory, where were performed various experiments and procedures, suggestive of the colour blue, including the dissection of a sheep’s eye, which was blue inside (who knew?). All these places and actions were discreet, they rarely connected or crossed over, places simply to speak the text or suggest generic action.

And what then was in the middle, taking up all the rest of the stage, that is most of it, the common areas, where it all came together? Dancers in the main, who always connected, who always acted together. Sometimes the moves were abstract, sometimes a specific presentation of something in the text. (The dance of the bird of paradise collecting blue objects for the behoof of his inamoratas was hilarious.)

Maggie Nelson’s text, Bluets, inspired by Wittgenstein and the abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell’s painting of the same name, is a very personal, very internal meditation on the colour blue, that impossible colour, the colour that isn’t there, the colour of yearning. No colours really exist independently of course, we make them in our brain. This can lead, and has led, to numerous philosophical cul-de-sacs; Maggie Nelson herself, as lovely as the prose can be, can go round and round while standing still, a wonderful evocation of, in the end, absolutely nothing.

Someone else, (me?) would have thrown up their hands in horror at the thought of making any kind of drama out of this, but somehow the students did something really profound, almost casually, almost as if: ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ In order to express something personal, we have to act together. Literally. Actually. Act together.

This is the synecdoche university thing: all the faculties in their own buildings, but the real action is in the common spaces. We’ll make sense of this as a group. We won’t try to present the internal, just go straight to the collective. The thoughts and ideas we have as a group are the way to dramatise the personal. There was something in the contrast, the discipline required to come to terms with a piece of writing that was personal but never indulgent, that seemed to touch on something really, genuinely new.

I don’t know about you but I find this absolutely revolutionary; radical in a quite unexpected and exciting way.

Yes, this is very experimental, a bit out there, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who really enjoyed this performance. It was very satisfying, and thought provoking. What will they do next, I wonder?

Paul Corcoran