I saw Jon Fosse’s I Am The Wind a month ago and it’s taken me a while to feel able to write anything about it. Not that I didn’t like it, didn’t respect its integrity, or didn’t respond in various ways to it, but it is a show that clearly resists encapsulation. It offers you a very still, unadorned experience, depriving you of most facets of character and story and offering a kind of pure experience of itself, stripped of expectation.
Summarising the play, therefore, is absurd so let me just say that I Am The Wind involves The One and The Other. The One seems horrified by something he (?) has done, some impulse that made him do an awful thing; but more, he seems horrified by action itself, by doing or saying anything, feeling everything to be a weight, his very existence a kind of dull, concrete weight. They agree to take a boat out into a bay, and then out onto the open sea. They eat and drink and then, at one point, far out at sea, The One ‘sort of stumbled’ into the sea and drowns. This, it seems, is that action the horror of which has animated the whole play.
It’s this strange circularity that asks you to abandon demands for character and story. The drowning is the beginning and end, and reflected on throughout, so the characters are both here and not-here, now and not-now. The One and The Other are typically post-Beckettian abstract names and there are no anchors in ‘real-world’ experiences to encourage belief that they are real people at all: I often wondered if they were perhaps aspects of a single mind, the one shrinking back and fearful, the other impetuous and despairing. This circularity, the abstraction, the simplicity of the language (beautifully rendered by Simon Stephens, I thought) make this a cool, still piece of theatre. It doesn’t really ‘move on’ over the course of its 65 minutes; instead a terrible sense of atemporal stasis unfolds before us.
This is evoked most beautifully at the beginning. The Other appears on stage, holding The One in his arms. Occasionally, his grip slackens and The One appears to sag, threatens to fall; then he hoists the other up. Their clothes are wet and heavy. It’s the beginning and it’s also the end and when they talk, it’s clear they are both inside and outside the situation, their clothes wet, their minds, as it were, dry, describing a situation that they seem no longer to be in.
The show is kind of about theatre’s battle with itself, the tension between art and materiality. Everything about the theatre that aspires to be weightless, immaterial, aesthetic, pure affect and intensity is always negotiated through the blunt materialism of its circumstances of production, the foursquare stage space, living, breathing, mistake-making actors, hard seats, finite duration, hot lights, ticket prices. The One complains:
if I’m on my own
and all I can hear is myself
Then there’s nothing there
and then I start getting heavy
I turn into a rock
and it gets
gets heavier and heavier
I get so heavy that I can barely move
so heavy that I
that I sink
I can barely speak
it’s a struggle
to get a single word out
to extract a single word
when the word is out
when the word has been spoken
it feels so heavy
that it drags me down too
it makes me sink and sink
(All stage directions and several lines omitted - pp. 29-31)
The feeling here is a mixture of writer’s block and stage fright, combining in a general sense of horror at the very physical experience of theatre. In this, the play connects to a very nineteenth-century, early-modernist sense of theatre’s mission to transcend the material conditions of its enactment. Think of Symbolism, with its gauzes and dim light, its auratic figures intoning poetic evocations of the Beyond. Think of Maeterlinck’s insistence that Shakespeare should only be read, not acted, because when we see Hamlet on stage, something of Hamlet dies for us. Think of the wave of interest in puppet drama, shadow dramas, that fascination in the idea of effacing the physical presence of the actor altogether. Think also of the earlier, Romantic tradition of the closet drama, the “spectacle dans un fauteuil”, the play designed to be read, not acted, the mind being the perfectly immaterial stage. I Am The Wind (what an evocatively evanescent title) sits squarely in that tradition, in its attempt to explore a wholly mental landscape.
That said, the visual centrepiece of this production is an extraordinary thing: the boat is a kind of raft, a section of the floor that rises up hydraulically, tilts and pivots, and gives a sense of effortful grace, as The Other pushes and eases the raft around with a kind of gondolier’s pole. It’s the experience of being in a boat that provides the play’s central metaphor for a floating above the dull earthly physicality of things. ‘I like,’ says The One, ‘being light / rocking gently / in the heavy boat’ (p. 57). It’s beautifully achieved in this, both light and heavy, simple and yet cluttered with meaning. And the small amount of water on the stage surges and floods as the raft rises and falls (see picture).
There was a witty piece by Martin Cohen in Times Higher Education a month ago detailing some myths about the French. He lists things like the French being proud of the Revolution, being literary people, and having a great train system, all of which he thinks are much overstated. We might add to that list their intellectualism. It is, of course, true that the French have produced a huge number of intellectuals who get interviewed on mainstream chat shows and write bestselling theoretical books. But perhaps we understate how cerebral our own theatre can be: this production, co-produced by the Young Vic, text by Simon Stephens, from Jon Fosse, sold out its run and was treated respectfully by many reviewers. Patrice Chereau, who directed it, is famous for his deconstructionist productions, but here offers clarity, lucidity, and a kind of bleak, wintry theatre spectacle in this punted, pivoting raft. Our language is rather good at capturing this; in the simplicity of the words, we are able to capture a densely rich barrenness and the play really does evoke a vision of theatre as intellectual experience.