Claire Trévien, The Shipwrecked House, Rich Mix, Shoreditch, 21st September; Canada Water Culture Space, 13th November, £10/8
Reviewed by Lizzy Palmer and Paul McMenemy
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
We saw this show at different venues about a month apart. The venues were fairly similar, small theatre spaces with tiered seating and a floor-level stage. On both occasions there were around thirty to forty people in the audience. As far as we can work out there were no obvious differences between the performances, with one possible exception which we’ll come to later.
PM: To start with the staging – there was an awful lot of stuff on the stage, which was set up originally to look like the inside of an old house strewn with furniture, boxes and suitcases covered with dustsheets; there were also various bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling from ropes and strings. In some parts, when Trévien was moving between the various props the whole thing reminded me of an oversized Fisher Price Activity Centre, with things being pushed, pulled, swung all over the place.
EP: It was an intriguing way to begin the performance. I felt drawn in quite quickly to the setting through Trévien’s moving through and interaction with the objects on the set, with the sense of nostalgia and rediscovered memory building strongly.
PM: All this stuff on the stage quickly told the audience that this was going to be a performance and not a reading. There is the possibility that the stage was somewhat cluttered, but everything on stage was used in the performance.
EP: The set was well-utilised throughout the piece, but I think after the initial setting of the atmosphere I found the amount of movement became distracting. Then again, it was supposed to be a performance, rather than a straight-up poetry reading! I had not read Trévien’s poetry before seeing the show, so I had no expectations regarding the transformation of the poetry into such a performance.
PM: In fact, it actually takes a little time before we get to the first spoken words of the performance, and even then, they initially come from what sounds like an old Linguaphone tape, which asks a number of standard language learning questions (How old are you? Do you have any brothers or sisters? etc.) to which Trévien replies. I thought this was a nice way of, on the one hand, bringing variety to the staging, and on the other, setting up some very basic back information without things feeling too forced. Of course, as this initial exchange is mostly in French, it ensures that things aren’t too straight-forward.
EP: From the beginning things felt quite ambiguous. I imagine this was deliberate, tying in with the themes of memory and nostalgia (and reminding us of their potential unreliability), and though the hints of dread and the unsettled did not emerge until later on, the feeling of not being quite comfortable in this new environment happened quite quickly for me.
PM: You’re right, the whole thing was rather disorienting, between the cluttered set, Trévien’s constant movement around the stage, the sound design and the language itself. There was an interesting point fairly early on in the piece where the soundtrack is used very effectively, I think – Trévien has been reminiscing about her grandmother’s house, at first in a fairly innocent, rose-tinted sort of a way, but slowly, sinister music begins to undercut this. For a few lines this seems jarring – the language remains sunny, although the performance seems less sure, doubt creeping into Trévien’s voice, and I started to worry that the stagecraft was doing all the work – but then the similes start to go awry, subtly, and the feeling of unease comes to the front.
EP: Yes, this moment served as something of a meeting of the disparate elements, and provided the beginnings of an answer for the odd sense of unease that had been creeping in. I think this held together well as the tension ramped up – the music became louder and more dramatic, and Trévien began to speak more urgently, eventually shouting her lines over the soundtrack – however, I found that, after a while, there was perhaps too much going on, and I struggled to hear the words over the stormy sounds – as the show was based explicitly on Trevien’s poetry, I thought it wasn’t ideal that a lot of the language was missed.
PM: Well, this brings us to the question of who exactly the work is for. As you say, in the ‘storm’ sections some of the words were drowned out, possibly intentionally. For those attending based on Trévien’s reputation as a poet, this might seem rather odd. In fact, although odd excerpts of the collection the show is based on do appear – with poems or parts of poems for the most part seamlessly elided into the narrative, this was very much a show rather than a recital. So, then, was it intended to reach a wider audience – a theatre audience rather than a ‘poetry audience’? If so, I’m not sure how well it succeeded – I can only go on the few people I spoke to before and after, but I suspect most of the audience had, if you like, poetry expectations.
EP: I suppose it depends on Trévien’s intentions regarding who she wished to reach, and one would assume that by extending her work into other forms she might be attempting to expand her audience. Perhaps my standpoint, in coming to see the show in order to write a review for a poetry magazine, meant that I was expecting too much from the poetry context. My viewpoint is perhaps even biased in terms of what I would expect a show based on poetic work to be!
I think I would have benefited from reading Trévien’s collection prior to viewing her show, and I would maybe have acquired more of an understanding of exactly what was being communicated through the language.
On this point, I found I was often lost during sequences due to my not being able to grasp the meaning of a lot of the passages. The imagery was at times beautiful (“her voice sinks like a coin to the ocean floor” and “my mother twists her ring like a weathervane” stand out) but got lost for me among the more surreal and seemingly nonsensical parts. Perhaps this was intentional in terms of the themes of chaos and the misremembered, but I was disappointed at not being given the chance to really get ‘stuck in’ to the language after having being drawn in so well by the initial setting up of the show’s backdrop.
I think the overall problem I had was that, considering the fact that the show was based on the concepts of memory, childhood and nostalgia, and that these themes are based on the personal and subjective, I didn’t feel drawn in quite enough – in other words, I didn’t feel that the audience was made to care enough. A person’s experience and memory is, of course, an exclusive thing (whether or not what we saw in the show was based on autobiographical truth is another matter), but I have to wonder how far we ought to be made to care and invest if we are coming along to view a performance set deliberately around these themes.
PM: I found myself more invested in the performance than I think you did, and I found the themes extremely interesting – as you say, there was a lot about memory and its inherent tricksiness – at the point I mentioned earlier we get the feeling that something bad happened in the house, but it’s not made clear what, or whether it was a real or imagined thing, or if the dreadful thing is simply the fact of no longer being a child, and looking back on the time that’s passed with a certain horror. Perhaps the horrific thing is a loss of belonging – Trévien is a Breton poet writing in English, living in England – her cultural identity is one of the things adrift in this performance. Nationality and nostalgia come together in the third main theme, myth.
So there were lots of evocative moments, and the whole thing, I think, was supposed to have a somewhat dreamlike quality where action consists of discrete moments rather than a through-composed plot. One instance of this was the use of perfume in some performances: I believe this was used in the performance you saw, but I don’t think it was – at least I didn’t notice it – in mine. Scent is of course a shortcut to memory and the emotions.
Similarly, you said you were not “drawn in”, and there seemed to be an intentional resistance to this in the script. We agreed earlier that this was a performance, not a recital, but it is also very clearly a performance as opposed to a story: we are rarely allowed to forget the artificiality of what is going on – at one point Trévien moves to the side of the stage to comment on the action – on herself, or her character. This is something that I really enjoyed about the performance, but if we go back to this issue of intended audience it raises another question. Audiences expecting a more traditional spoken word show will be distracted by the elements of theatre, but theatre audiences would have a hard time with the lack of a linear – or really, any – narrative.
I think this means the show is rather a unique thing and should certainly be seen for oneself, however I do agree that these elements do mean it is only an intermittently immersive experience. I suppose it depends, ultimately, on what you are looking for: if you want a stimulating experience unlike anything else you are likely to see on a stage anytime soon, with interesting themes explored via beautifully inventive language and arresting stagecraft, then I would recommend this. If you are looking for any one thing in particular – to hear poetry, to see a play, to be carried along by a narrative and identifiable characters, then possibly this is not for you.