The show really starts when you buy a ticket. No, before that.
The show begins when you read the title. you'll see [me sailing in antarctica]
asks the audience to imagine what they will see; it promises a sight
which we never see, but lives [only] in the imagination. Since I bought
my ticket six weeks ago, I've carried around an image of someone
unspecified in a small sailing vessel in the blue whiteness of the
non zero one's
new show is somewhat site-specific and somewhat interactive. The
audience gathers in the circle foyer of the Olivier Theatre and then
we're led outside to a roof area at the south-east edge of the National
almost between the Lyttelton and Olivier fly towers. There are 23 of us,
including five members of the company, seated around a circular table.
Above us is a large white hydrogen balloon, tethered in position but
bobbing in the wind, with a bright light inside. It looks like a blob of
light hanging milkily above us. We're wearing coats and scarves and
plastic ponchos. Around us is London: the Shard, the Eye, the Houses of
Parliament, the Hayward. But before we get to this place, we've imagined
it. We've imagined it because a member of the company has asked us to
imagine it; she's described the walk to the roof, the shape of the
table, the height of the platform, the rope lights along the walkway,
the headsets that we all put on. The first collision of the performance
is the gap, however slender, between the mental image we've got in our
heads and the reality that we encounter two minutes later.
This becomes the apparent central
concern of the show. The troubled relationship between mental and
optical images, the work the brain does in selecting, transforming,
discarding parts of our experience, through placing objects under
categories, the optics of focus and attention, and the work of memory.
We're asked to reflect on the gaps between what we see and what we
expect, the uniqueness of the event we're taking part in and how it will
change in the memory, the way we fill in gaps in our mental pictures,
and the way we construct mental images to guide our way through our
futures. The company playfully introduce us to a number of concepts -
philosophical, scientific, psychological - about perception, though
always with a rather delightful sense of being only vaguely acquainted
with the idea and not wholly sold on it.
Later in the show, we do some focusing
exercises, limber up our eye muscles; on screens we are given words in
various colours and we have to say what the colour is, though because
the words themselves are names of colours we find that the semantic
content interferes with our ability to just ‘see’. Then rise from our
seats and face outwards. SPOILER ALERT The platform then starts to
revolve and we are asked to say what we are seeing into the microphones
on our headsets. Immediately you become aware of the necessity to
select. It is impossible in language to render the fine detail of vision
but perversely the work of turning what we see into language makes us
(well - made me) seek out things I might
not ordinarily have looked at. The South Bank of London is so familiar
to me; I grew up near there I must have seen it - what? - 10,000 times?
Do I even ‘see’ it any more?
And then we’re asked to project forward
to imagine a future for ourselves, to imagine a sight we would like to
see, and then to picture our own deaths. The show is quirky, playful,
amusing, riddling, but at this moment it starts to become sombre and
reflective. The gap between what we experience and what we imagine takes
on a very different feeling when projected into the future. There is a
shocking vividness to what you can imagine but this is laced with the
uncertainty of whether what you imagine will ever be realised. Even the
most modest ambition (to drink tea and eat a crumpet) might not
transpire. I was surprised at my willingness to dig into my hope and
shocked by how moved I was by both holding that hope vividly in my
imagination and by the aching recognition that this hope might never be
realised. As I left the space and walked back down into the National
Theatre, I was surprised at how weak with feeling I had become. The
performance had taken me emotionally by surprise.
Academics have a tendency, when working
on a project or a problem, to see it everywhere. You're working on a
puzzle in epistemology and suddenly every news story seems to ask this
question again and again in perverse and complicated ways. You're
struggling with a project on political economy and suddenly the
contradictions of capitalism are visible in every last pixel of lived
experience. It's both what is creative and transforming about research
and a danger: the danger is that you end up losing the boundaries of
your research, becoming an obsessive, seeing everything as some kind of
emanation of your intellectual activity, like you've been down there and
discovered the meaning of life.
I mention this because I wrote an article
a few years ago about theatre and its relationship to mental images.
I’ve given talks on it, lectures based on it, and think about it a lot,
to the extent that I rarely see a piece of theatre without returning to
the puzzles in the processes of ordinary theatrical perception. But this
show really really really is working in
that area, asking questions about what we are looking at and its
relationship with what is imagined. Here the difference with the theatre
I was discussing is that there’s virtually no fiction involved: the
company really are the company, sitting and talking to us. There’s very
little pretence involved, except that of course, in the absence of a
capacity to by wholly objective, we’re always seeing fictions, in a
But what the show does is ask questions
about our own relationship to theatregoing itself as a fictional act.
The show has already shifted and warped in my mind. When I described the
end, I passed directly from that private projection of our future
selves to the ending. I didn’t mention the glorious moment where the
balloon is illuminated and we hear our own collective voices speaking
the skyline of London. The show erases itself; it is a show about the
failure we will all experience to imagine the show beforehand, to fully
take it in at the time, and to remember it properly afterwards. And it’s
a celebration of what that means for us as individuals and for the
power of the mind. It’s a show about itself in a certain way.
It’s a very powerful and immensely
enjoyable piece of work. The personas that the company present are very
likeable, modest, and suggest no sense of superiority (we’re going to explain things to you) or flattery (we’re so pleased you’re here) or tiresome challenge (everything you think is wrong).
They hit just the right note of clarity, pleasure, and reassurance. Is
it perfect? Probably not, but what is? I guess I thought the ideas were
perhaps thrown around a bit casually which sometimes seemed unselective.
I thought the move to asking us to imagine our own deaths was a little
obvious and maybe a bit cheap. (I should say the person I went with was
much crosser about this than I was.) But it was so strong in so many
ways: the reimagining of the National, than shape-shifting, organic
white sphere above us contrasting with the brutalist rectilinearity of
the flytowers. The sense of fleeting community. The wit and warmth of
I spent much of the performance with the Hayward Gallery in my eyeline, where this show is currently on. you’ll see [me sailing in antarctica] is like a companion piece to an exhibition of invisible art, because it’s a show that you can go to but never see.