Review: Dissolve by Awkward City

DissolveDissolve by Awkward City is a non-narrative glimpse into the world of memory loss. I usually find it difficult to connect with shows which don’t have a strong storyline, but in this case it was entirely appropriate.

Olivia is a young woman who has lost several years of her life and is struggling to reconnect with herself and the world. The show draws the audience into her struggle, by presenting a series of dissociated fragments of her incomplete memory … we strive to connect them, to build up a picture of who this person is, but the ‘now’ of her identity as a fractured mind is more pervasive than the ‘then’ of her personality, built on forgotten experiences.

The device used by the company to create this empathy on one hand is sheer genius and yet, in a way, inherently frustrating. Olivia, the person, never speaks. Instead her inward contemplation is voiced by another performer, as if somehow she is disconnected even from her own thought processes. And she remains almost entirely passive throughout the show, surrounded by a group of technicians dressed in black, who present her to herself, and to us, through the lens of a video camera, which captures the live action from a series of entirely personal angles, and projects it onto a large screen which dominates the stage. It leaves you feeling disconnected from the piece and strangely disturbed, wondering if what you have just seen qualifies as a piece of theatre, since the action on stage is flat and relatively meaningless, and only comes to life when presented through the camera.

And yet it employs all the devices of theatre, applied to the medium of live film. The performer, dressed in pyjamas as she is throughout the entire piece, stands motionless centre stage. A technician holds a piece of perspex in front of her and sprays it with a mister, while another takes two small theatre lights mounted on a piece of wood, points them at the glass and moves them slowly from one side to the other and back again. A third technician hits ‘play’ on the sound tape and we hear the muted roar of cars passing. As an audience this means nothing to us. Yet when we look up at the screen, the camera trained on her face reveals a vulnerable young woman, staring through a window lashed by rain at the dark road outside, trying to connect with the rest of humanity as it passes her by, refusing her the confirmation of her own existence that she so desperately needs. As an audience member you yearn to connect with the action on stage … after all, that is why you came to the theatre. But, to understand the meaning, you are forced to watch it through the lens, one step removed from what is happening, and therein lies the supreme skill of the artistic vision.

The text of the piece is hauntingly beautiful, and as sporadic as Olivia’s memory. The score is perfectly conceived and serves to connect the fragments on an emotional level which allows the piece to flow. It’s only forty minutes long, and yet it is so intense that any longer would be untenable. When I saw the show, on the first performance, it was still a little rough around the edges and suffered from some technical glitches which is always a danger when a show relies so heavily on electronic hardware. It is so delicately poised that interruptions and distractions of that nature irrevocably disturb the subtle balance of the piece. But I am sure that, as it plays-in, these problems will be ironed-out.

I have to say that I found the piece too disturbing to say I ‘enjoyed’ the evening, and I left the theatre feeling, on one level, emotionally cheated. Yet it has stayed with me and given me a much deeper understanding of something that lies entirely outside my own experience. And, after all, isn’t that what theatre is all about?

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