Here is a bald statement of fact. You only get one life. It is brief and it is unlikely to turn out as you planned or hoped or imagined. Here is another. Any artist who addresses this is onto a winner..
Before Your Very Eyes is just such a dead cert. What’s more, that certainty is furthered cemented by the presence of nine children – cutesy, button-nosed Belgian children, at that – aged between 8 and 14. In fact, Gob Squad and CAMPO (formerly Victoria) get double definite points, as their kids seem both wise beyond their years and old before their time.
The title, by the way, is playful. It admits its own blatancy, that its basic provocation is staring you straight in the face, but also acknowledges – with a cool irony – that the show is a minor-miracle, a marvel to behold. It almost needs a drum-roll. Over 90 minutes, these nine children and their little button-noses will run the gamut of human existence, zipping through the aging process at warp speed and hurtling towards the grave. You see the formula? Cute young kids + life’s brief candle = coolly distant existential humour + inevitable lump in throat.
Essentially, we’re talking about a live-art equivalent of Hollywood films like Jack, Big or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. These are anti-Never Never Land tales, plots that play havoc with the life-cycle. They tell stories of lives like scratched CDs that skip, fast-forward or rewind to rob the protagonist of the best years of their lives. And like them, you watch Before Your Very Eyes through damp eyes, smiling a faint smile and sighing a light sigh. It doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know – and, to judge from its title, it has no such aspirations. Rather it looks you square in the eye and reminds you of something all too easily forgotten: that life ought not be wasted and that it’s never too late to change.
Those children are in a box made of one-way mirrors, a creche of sorts, that half-fools you into thinking that you’re watching them in their natural habitat, uncorrupted by the gaze of an audience. The rolling start, signified by the lights dimming and the microphones on the inside starting up but no change in the behaviour of the performers, seeks to stress the point and compound the illusion. The idea is so successfully planted, in fact, that it feels odd to even call them performers.
Actually, there’s a knowingness to the whole thing, a slick slipperiness that already knows the exact effect it wants and pursues it pretty ruthlessly. There is a definite manipulation at play; not of the children, but of us. Doe-eyes are deployed with devastating efficiency. All that said, frustratingly, it’s so bloody tried and tested that you can’t resist. Essentially, we’re all suckers for this kind of thing. I don’t know; blame the selfish gene or something. What’s more, being completely fair to Gob Squad, it’s tidily, sharply and roundedly done. You might resent its manipulation, you might try and resist, but you’ll still fall for it hook, line and sinker.
So what actually happens? The kids start out as kids, pottering around in the box-room, watching cartoons and playing rounds of the Belgian version of pat-a-cake. (Incidentally, it’s a really canny piece of curation on LIFT’s part to play this next to Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, for these kids are also representing kids and, just like Back to Back’s work, it begs questions their authorial ownership and level of understanding.) A recorded voice – Big Brother as benign schoolmistress – addresses them in questions and instructions. ‘Have you been practising?’ it asks the smallest girl, who’s hula-hooping respectably. A video of her younger self appears on the television and on a large projection screen outside the box. She hulas abysmally. ‘This is when we first met,’ intones the voice.
As, one by one, the children of today come face to face with themselves of yesteryear, you realise that they are already different people. They have somewhat disowned those antecedents with a small smile, both patronising and embarrassed, at their onetime naivety. ‘Just look at him,’ says one, a Euro-Bieberish boy called Spencer, ‘He’s trying to be so cute…This isn’t me.’
Then, the ‘aging’ starts in earnest with new teenage outfits (a grungy uniform), playful gothic make-up and, hanging from every set of lips, a cigarette. Just when you think they won’t light them, a jet of smoke darts out of each one. (They’re stage props, but the moment stands.) It’s neatly provocative: a full-on, prohibition-smashing free-rein.
Once again they consult with their younger selves on screen – not so dismissive this time, but removed and kindly in their superiority. Questions – ‘Is it fun to wear a bra?’ – get answers that have the tone of a pat on the head. ‘Puberty? I am puberty,’ says one. ‘What can you do at 19?’ asks the voice. The usual answers – new freedoms, badges of adulthood: vote, smoke, drink sort of thing – come back.
And so on into middle-age, where identities are expressed through ‘sensible’ clothes and drawn-on facial hair. The voice orders an improvisation; a drinks party with home-made sushi (marshmallows). There are conversations about old wines and new gadgets; everyone is a bit bored, playing at maturity and acting as they think they should, repressing impulse. At 44, there’s a tiredness about possibilities: they can get divorced, pretend not to be drunk, say ‘in my youth.’ Many have a glimmer of the child’s perspective: ‘I can use a calculator for an easy sum.’ ‘I can make my children wear hats when I’m cold.’
Ok, so you know that most of this has been fed to them. It must have been. No child can see through their parents quite this much, right? These are, essentially, children playing at being adults. It’s a game of dressing up, of mummies and daddies. First and foremost, it thoroughly skewers our own insecurities; that feeling we all share – which presumably never goes away – that deep down we’re ill-equipped and unprepared; that life is nothing but one deep end after another.
Gob Squad make adulthood look absurd. It’s more pronounced in this middle-age section, possibly because teenagers are too easy a target, where adults proper take themselves seriously enough to be a legitimate target.
That absurdity, however, is laced with sadness. It seems a waste. ‘Are you doing the job you dreamed of as a child?’ the voiceover asks. (At least I think it does, though that might have crept in from 100% London.) Even in this childish fantasy version, there is enough familiarity and truthfulness to make it seem a waste of time. This forms a canny concoction: one-part ‘change thy ways before its too late’, another of inevitability and ‘it’s already too late’.
The voiceover creeps in: ‘What was a mysterious and exciting future is now starting to fade. You realise you’re not special. As the world forgets you, as you learn there is no one watching and there never was, you that the only part of you that remains is someone else.’ This is the heart of the matter, the real thrust of the sentimentality: Before Your Very Eyes tells us the truth that we all try so hard to suppress; that slays us emotionally each time we hear it. That the world will carry on without us. We will carry on without our loved ones and they without us. That, as Danny Foster Wallace’s fish discover, this is water.
This, Gob Squad suggest, is the elixir and by 77 – with wrinkles drawn on and grey wigs pulled over tiny heads; with life having drifted into the third conditional, ‘can’ having become ‘could have,’ – there is a newfound freedom. There’s a regenerated sense of play, and death, that favourite childhood game, is approached with relish. The nine run on the spot, up and down in time, until, one by one, they drop out for their moment in the limelight, their final flourish. Death, finally, remains a joke. It is long-drawn-out suffocation or a fit of brain spasms or poisoned apples that choke us to our knees. And ultimately, you realise that there’s no knowing that until it happens and, when it does, there’s no longer any need to know.
This, really is the strength of Before Your Very Eyes. It’s a coruscating heartache and a downcast joy that, in spite of all its existential angst, refreshes your lust for life. Even if it is a bit sentimental.