Friday, 24 October 2014

The Cambridge show worth making time for

A year or so on from writing about Ernest Dalton's last show with neuf, here goes on his latest, the pithily entitled Hierarcadia; Approximating Naivety, where he teams up with Alexandra Drysdale.

It's a 40 minute show well worth the free entry: highly experimental, full of sympathy and humour, well acted, often absurd, often profound. It's demanding and elusive but also lighter than previous work I've seen from Ernie, with more positive resolution in its outcome, greater in hope and lower in angst.

We're in an upstairs room in the Boathouse pub in Chesterton Road, and again transported into his trademark world, that intriguing cryptic space between reality and unreality. Like the court jester of old, who would use humour and absurdity to sail close to the wind in pointing out perhaps unpalatable truths, Ernie challenges our perceptions of reality - life, the world, relationships, constants - .by holding up the mirror of unreality. It provides an interesting reflection, forcing both .in- and extrospective consideration: are we who we think we are, how do we fit in with the apparent relentless patterns we see in the universe?  How can we be happy?Who runs who? A load of small questions like that.

The show centres around Poussin's picture Dance to the Music  of Time, a XV11th century depiction that shows the lot of Man - to dance to the music that has been preordained by the gods. We see this via the central vista that shows four individuals with backs turned to each other, hands joined, dancing in a circle. Each individual represents one particular human state ranging from poverty to wealth. They dance round in what is part Wheel of Fortune and part Musical Chairs, for who knows when the music will stop? Above them in the heavens the gods look down in their detachment, happy with the repetitive reel below that holds mankind prisoner in its rhythm. It is a beautiful quite cryptic picture. But also fatalistic,for while the artist may be pointing out the arbitrariness of life he suggests no escape from the prison lottery, nor even the (Christian) offer of posthumous salvation: it's just the way life is.

Against this backdrop - the picture is projected on the wall behind the action - the meat of the show materialises. Modern figurative "sculpture" is assembled on the stage in such a way that it overlays the Poussin and we are thus invited to consider two competing art forms, or world interpretations, simultaneously.

There are moments of humour as the sculpture - made of odds and ends, eggs, ping pong balls, leaves and paper bags ( well why not?) - is erected.The fact that it is exceptionally, perhaps absurdly, abstract helps force the point when juxtaposed with the classical.  Our interpretive powers, both reasoning and emotional, are forced into having to make some sort of decision about what we are witnessing, if anything. And, not for the first time when experiencing Ernie's productions, this member of the audience's  Emperor's New Clothes alert button came on at fairly regular intervals: Were we being sucked into a massive con?

My conclusion was that we were not.

In fact, the sculpture serves a key function beyond its juxtapositioning: in its construction we are taken, indeed gently jolted, out of ourselves. This allows us to be more receptive to any end message we might be about to receive. During its creation our natural cognitive defences are reduced. A sort of mental muscle relaxant is in play, enhanced significantly by the simple hypnotic tones of Su Lyn's original sound track. Even if you don't understand why you are on this journey or where you are after it, it's still an enjoyable trip.

The main action that follows is a well acted and often highly emotional interplay between Ernie and Alexandra, the one more Hamletian, the other more Free Spirit, as they consider the eternal questions of life and love and how both can be rewarding in the context of the relentless turning of the hurdygurdy of Time, with its habit of dashing hopes and harbouring regrets.

Emperor's New Clothes? I don't think so as the piece seemed to offer a solution.Deny Time.Don't look back, don't look forward, break the wheel. Screw the gods, now is now.


It may not be going too far to say that this is where art meets therapy.

And that this sort of absurd thinking could sort out a lot of lives.