Thursday, May 21, 2009

England at Whitechapel Gallery

Look. A man and woman dressed anonymously stand side by side in a gallery. They are our guides.

The man and woman are Tim Crouch (he of An Oak Tree) and Hannah Ringham, co-founder of Shunt. They tell us a story, speaking together, two voices, one journey.

We do not know the name, job or even the gender of the narrator. We are told only that their boyfriend is a rich art dealer who speaks several languages and that he/she/they are unwell, seriously ill, possibly dying. A heart transplant is their only means of survival.

The play is divided in to two parts. The first half plays out in the recently reopened Whitechapel Gallery’s current exhibition of works by Isa Genzken (Open Sesame!, a collage of urban materials: glass, metal, fractured concrete blocks standing on slender pedestals). Though this choice of exhibition seems entirely fitting, the play was written to be performed in any gallery space and was originally staged in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007 and has played in several other spaces since.

Look, but don’t touch, we are repeatedly told as we move among the exhibits, watching, listening. Occasionally Crouch and Ringham will move around the room, causing the audience to shuffle after them in an ambling gallery manner, like a group of tourists on a guided tour. Depending on where one is standing, the performers’ faces are sometimes framed by Genzken’s dauntingly solid yet fragile concrete sculptures, an image that seems perfectly in keeping with their tale of human breakability.

The second half of the play takes place in the gallery’s lecture theatre. The change in locations coincides with a shift in the narrative: a transplant, a new heart, a life is saved, while another ends. We are now in some unnamed country, listening as the narrator converses with the widow of the donor through an interpreter, who also supplies her replies. The trade in artworks and organs are explicitly linked; life and art – two things beyond price – have become the stuff of transaction.

The play, though captivating, has a, while not exactly clinical quality, a kind of distance to the way it is performed. In the first half both voices share a sense of wonder; having faced death and survived the world has become full of gifts and everything is something that it’s possible to be thankful for. The second half has a more conventionally dramatic feel, as the recipient of the heart confronts the wife of the man whose death gave them life.

The lecture theatre setting of the second segment is rather drying, coming as it does after the milling, shifting first half. This has the effect of emphasising the rather cerebral, head-driven nature of the piece. An hour long, England is a meditation on art, health, survival, on all the things that can be – and are – bought and sold. It leaves its audience with much to digest and with a small seed of wonder within.

Reviewed for musicOMH.