The philosopher John Locke devised a problem to demonstrate the disconnect between memory and personal identity. He wrote about a child stealing apples, who as a young soldier on the battlefield remembers that earlier theft. As an old man, he can remember leading troops into battle, but can’t remember stealing apples as a child.
Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer shows a life in four such segments. Flora, a woman in her late seventies looks back on her life. She’s surrounded by three former selves, each played by a different actress. We see her in her early fifties, mid thirties and late teenage years.
Autobiographer is framed as an attempt to address dementia, but it needn’t be seen directly as such. It feels more universal than that: not a specific medical condition, but the standards terms and conditions of life. It reads about aging and memory, about life and identity as processes. Given that the programme notes – and we don’t get a programme until after the event – point out that ‘dementia is not an inevitable consequence of aging,’ the possibility of universality feels like an oversight. It makes dementia, a topic it seeks to separate, blend into ordinary experience.
The three younger women don’t feel like memories ‘refracted through the lens of dementia,’ as the playtext blurb puts it. Instead, each seems intact; untouched by the erosion of memory loss. Perhaps each self remembers its immediate predecessor into existence onstage – making Autobiographer a series of subsets; memories within memories like Inception’s dreams within dreams or Locke’s aging apple thief – but the different Floras seem to exist more independently than that.
The four women pick up one another’s sentences, without conversing between themselves. They mirror each other’s thoughts: facing one another ‘from the other end of the…telescope’. For me, they read as entities separated in time. Wilson shows us a life carved up like Damien Hirst’s sliced cow: only viewable as a whole from the outside.
I don’t think this diminishes anything. It remains a beautiful composition, tender and warm and humane. Seen from this angle, Autobiographer becomes an interesting companion piece to Nick Payne’s Constellations. Rather than flicking through parallel presents, it shows four points on a single thread.
At each stage, Flora is a different person – certainly in terms of the way we read character on stage according to the symptoms (or symbols) of their state of mind. They all wear the same cocktail dress: a deep emerald; elegantly simply. Beneath it are different shoes: trendy brogues, serious straps, practical flats, comfortable suedes. Zoom out and the impression is of a continual present and constant regeneration.
Wilson’s practice suits this perfectly. Autobiographer plays in the round, in a space constructed to allow 360° surround sound. It’s a disorientating swirl of footsteps, muffled voices, snippets of songs and other sounds. It’s a blur of half-memories; an attic full of life’s flotsam. Because we are inside the sound, rather than listening in, the effect is like immersion. Add in Wilson’s poetic and sensual text, not quite onomatopoeic, but imagistic, textural and flavourful, almost entirely natural (dandelion clocks and individual feathers, rustling leaves, stone walls and birdsong) and her voice – down-soft, 95% just breath (her fellow performers follow suit) – and Autobiographer seems designed to disappear almost instantly. Words pass from one ear to the other, tickling your brain on the way through. Any sense of narrative, of certainty, is impossible. Individual images fade from view, sequences shrink in the rear view mirror.
Wilson makes theatre as spa-treatment. Her work seeps through you, washes over you and leaves you refreshed. You exist alongside it, surfing moment by moment, completely outside out of everyday time. Autobiographer is experienced entirely in the present, just as the Floras (and the rest of us) live life.
Nevertheless, by the same token, it leaves only a vague, wispy residue behind. Rather than piercing through the vagaries of the ideas contained, it matches them and, as such, Autobiographer can feel like an entrancing mobile to be gawped at unthinkingly. The piece is passed through without significant lasting impact or transformation.
And yet, there is continuity. ‘I am a dress pattern,’ says the 70-year-old Flora, a phrase repeated in different permutations by the other selves. The pattern is always the same, but the difference is in the way it sees itself, its position relative to the world: ‘I am a dress pattern of a mother;’ ‘I am the dress pattern. My mother made me;’ ’The pattern of a dress my mother made.” (Emphasis my own.) It’s not just the continuity of an individual life, but that life as part of a larger cycle, one that will continue without us. A life might be lived as a process, but its effects knock on. Wilson’s work, less so.