In Stand By for Tape Back-Up, Sutherland riffs on found footage from an old video cassette belonging to his grandfather. He uses these clips, culled from the pop cultural backdrop of his 1980s childhood – The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ghostbusters, The Crystal Maze, Jaws – as the inspiration for a series of poetic pieces. The tape plays out behind him as he performs and his words are guided by the images, circling, syncing, each new loop of the tape generating fresh collisions. Pause. Rewind. Replay.
This is perhaps the most potent of Sutherland’s linguistic exercises to date. Previously he’s played with substitution and translation, machine-made poetics, participatory experiments in heckling, but here the formal inventiveness and iterative experimentation is coupled with something even more emotionally explorative. The effect is hypnotic, simultaneously soothing and rousing, the language ripe and bright. With each groundhog twist through the same set of images, each spin of a skinny-limbed Will Smith above the head of his Philly playground antagonist, things reset and another layer of interpretation is added.
The video footage seems to infect the verse: Sutherland is not just describing what’s happening on screen, it’s more subtle and symbiotic than that. He’s dancing with it, driven by it. It reminded me of the ghosting process in the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, a production in which the actors weren’t just engaged in restaging and recreating Richard Burton’s famous Broadway production but were somehow inhabited by the spectral monochrome world which played out on the screens behind them, an act of channelling, a dash of the uncanny. I was also put in mind of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s epic Life and Times, or at least the first two episodes, in which the minutiae of one woman’s life, all the little tics and rhythms of conversational speech, complete with pauses, ‘ers’ and ‘ums’ were rendered poetic through repetition. There’s something similarly alchemical going on here.
Nostalgia can be a grubby currency, cheaply traded (especially on the Fringe), but shared cultural memory has an undeniable emotional charge which Sutherland taps into, exploring his relationship with his grandfather, both as a child and as an adult, evoking a sense of inheritance and human continuation through a collage of the shows he once watched as a boy.
The clip of The Crystal Maze shows a woman repeatedly failing to understand the rules of the game despite her teammates’ urgent shouted instructions; she comes close to solving it, but bails in the final seconds. No matter how many times you repeat it, whatever spin you put on it, that crucial button remains unpressed, the elusive crystal unclaimed. The Jaws sequence is perhaps not quite as strong as the others, but it serves a purpose in terms of textural variety and the Natwest ad coda is a beautiful fist-pump of a finale.
This a wonderfully layered piece, touching, funny and linguistically thrilling; a show which works on a whole host of levels, a show threaded with modern madeleines and great, green ghosts in the machine.
Pause. Rewind. Replay.
Reviewed for Exeunt