Saturday 21 April 2012

A pathetic little word

Jimmy Stewart, An Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (And Rabbits), Forest Fringe at the Gate Theatre, London

Love. Love changes everything. Especially when you’ve fallen out of love, or someone has fallen out of love with you. Love – or a lack of love - can make you feel like you’re from another planet, like rabbits are human and humans are water. Love can even make you feel like you’re Jimmy Stewart, beamed in from out of Mars, on a mission to decipher human emotion. That, at least, is the premise of Tassos Stevens’ show, which might have a bloody complicated title but is, in reality, a beautiful, simple, head scratching, heart bleeding exploration of the impact and meaning of love.

Alongside this exploration of love is, perhaps inevitably, an examination of the ambiguity of language. Tassos Stevens is a storyteller and, as he narrates the tale of Jimmy wandering across the earth and wondering about human feeling, he uses every opportunity he can to crack open the concept of love and examine its individual parts. In building up Jimmy’s Stewart’s anthropological adventure, Stevens cleverly (but always endearingly – never pretentiously) de-constructs the concept of love.

Stevens does this in many different ways. His script is peppered with hackneyed phrase from popular love songs, all of which interrupt his thoughtful and organic script with a strange thud. He might be elegantly exploring the idea of love and rhythm, when a familiar phrase – such as ‘the power of love’ – might muscle its way into the script. It’s odd to think of the effect these phrases have on us. They feel obvious. They feel crude. They feel false. They don’t really mean anything. With these tiny slips, the idea of the redundancy of language – its tired potential to express a constantly evolving emotion – subtly slips into the script.

But it isn’t just through subtle dramaturgical effects, that Stevens examines the limitation and the power of the word love. He also tackles the idea head on. Although this story is supposedly told in the third person, great swathes are addressed directly to the audience and it’s only with a final phrase – ‘Said Jimmy Stewart’ – that we realise, with a jolt, these words are supposedly not Stevens’ own. But Stevens with-holds this final phrase for a reason and, for much of the time, it feels he is talking directly to us, directly from his heart.

And so, Stevens talks to us of the strange vulnerability of that word love and its ability to change radically, if conjoined – or separated from – another word. He examines the awesome power of the preposition, ‘in’, and the idea that once this tiny word is cruelly detached from the word ‘love’, all that happiness and trust and hope turns to dust. It is such an incredible, baffling thought and does indeed, as Stevens’ outer planet context suggests, make us humans seem almost alien. How can we be swayed and destroyed by one tiny little preposition? How can our lives turn on such a pathetic little word?

Stevens thickens up his examination of love and language, with the use of a ‘synaesthetic sound system’. This is, in reality, an A3 pad on which sound effects are written. Again, this simple device cleverly un-picks language’s strange quirks. See the phrase ‘a startled dog’, written on its own, and an image of a surprised puppy might flash through your brain. But, see the phrase, ‘a breeze of wind, like a startled dog’, flashed up on a ‘synaesthetic sound system’ and these words congeal brilliantly, the image of the puppy dissolved but a wonderfully complex, credible sound filling your ears. It’s a clever tactic, this silent sound system, as it not only plays on the susceptibility of language, but also encourages the audience to help craft this story. It’s as if we’re all sketching a vivid, sprawling comic book together.

Sometimes, Stevens writes incredibly stark phrases on his A3 pad: ‘Too bright…Burning…In flames.’ These pared down phrases accompany pivotal moments in the script, such as when Jimmy Stewart gets a little glimpse at exactly what love is. They’re like Stevens’ lighting system, shining a spotlight on a particularly significant moment.

Stevens also uses his audience to great effect. At one point, paper and pen are passed around the crowd, and we’re all asked to scribble down what love means to us. Everyone does so eagerly. The funny things is, despite everything this show has told us – how slippery that word is and how transient – we all think we know what love means. The slips of paper are collected and Stevens is left with a hat-full of interpretations, which he reads out, with respect. Each offering rings true but there’s one that sticks out, and chimes with this honest and falteringly optimistic show: ‘I wish I knew.’


Forest Fringe is now finished.


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The Stage
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Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

 

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