Thursday 9 June 2011

King Canute of the Countryside Alliance

I Belong to this Band, Riverside Studios, London

I suspect Kings of England’s tribute to a lost England can only work in a metropolitan setting. It is too reliant on the otherness of rusticity and folk to exist without removing its content from its natural habitat.

Each time it plays, Simon Bowes recruits a number of local musicians and/or performers into an impromptu band. Together they deliver and dissect a selection of traditional folk songs, lost in ‘the passing of time’ to which Kings of England’s work always refers. It is at once a mourning ritual and a celebration. For each, we get a synopsis by way of explanation and sometimes several alternative renditions, which stress their oddity. At first the music seems quaint and bucolic: its plots seem almost doltish for their totemic animals and faint mysticism. Yet there’s something infectious and irresistible. The surprise is to find yourself singing heartily along.

The crucial image comes early on. The five performers kneel, almost ceremonially, upstage, bearing baking paper cut-outs of string instruments that they slowly crumple into balls and discard. These seem like autumn leaves parched and disintegrating. They shrivel in the same way that glaciers melt: slowly but inevitably. So too does the rural way of life to which they point, as the countryside becomes subsumed by expanding cities. I Belong to this Band concerns extinction and one can’t help but feel that Bowes is recruiting not so much a band as a rebellious militia of sorts, determined to stem the advance of urbanity. King Canute of the Countryside Alliance, perhaps.

Such an attempt, however, seems futile and Bowes is not so naïve as all that. Rather than attempting to force a U-turn, I Belong to this Band causes pause and pensive reflection. It is a remembrance service for a way of life that still just about exists. Nature here is absent. It is constructed. Dogs and birds are cut from the same baking paper; their barks and chirrups are played through speakers. These are symbols and the implication is that they will soon be without equivalents. I Belong to this Band is therefore a eulogy for a non-urban existence. It needs the urban backdrop and metropolitan audience because its momentum exists only insofar as we realise that our norms are destroying those of others. In the expansion of our ecosystem, we impose upon another one.

That we find ourselves joining in, of course, is what turns that momentum into melancholy and, having done so, makes the change matter – if only fleetingly. That’s why the DIY style, the ramshackle shambles of forgotten steps and uncertain singing, is so vital to the piece. It invites us to sing along, not led by rehearsed and goading performers, but with them in their tentative uncertainty. (That said, the piece deserves a better performance than the distracted and uncommitted one given last Friday. Bowes can ill-afford awkward self-consciousness in leading his troops.)

That strain of sentimentality is the chink in the piece’s armour. It needs the present-tense tinge of sadness of golden-hued nostalgia and that, of course, fades from view. Leave the theatre and the surrounding city feels, for a while, unnatural and all-pervasive, unstoppable, but it will not do so for long. Later it will serve its practical purposes as per. It will need negotiating or navigating through. It will throw up its pleasures and possibilities, its razzle and its dazzle. By the time it does, rest assured that you won’t concern yourself with its cost in rural terms. It might still have the radical discomfort of a one-way trip to hell in a handcart, but solutions will not be found in rose-tinted reflections on rurality. Pleasing as they might be.

Part of the Show Time micro-festival, 3-4 June 2011


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