Thursday 17 March 2011

Murkiness clearing

The Cleansing of Constance Brown, AE Harris Building, Birmingham

She stands there, at the end of the corridor, with a camera hanging from her neck, staring out at us. ‘I can see you,’ she says, softly but with edge. It’s a flirtatious warning. Nothing goes unnoticed.

Stan’s Cafe place us at the end of a corridor that stretches until it shrinks. It’s like looking down a mineshaft or along an air-vent. Up and down its length, criss-crossing between its doors, move figures from history, from film, from our world and from those of which we’ve dreamt or imagined or heard. Janitors cross paths with policemen. Soldiers and spooks pass sobbing secretaries. Queen Elizabeth I glides forward. All the corridors of the world, for all of time, are amalgamated before us.

Like Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other and Forced Entertainment’s 12am Awake and Looking Down, this is theatre as list. It is a sequence of people and events linked only by the their collision in space and time and the connections in your head. It differs by leaving scenes to linger, developing morsels of narrative within. That diminishes its ability to overload. It never achieves the strobe-effect that leaves you snatching at images to retain them. It is, in other words, too easy. We can settle in and absorb too readily. At times, it’s as softly hypnotic as a screensaver.

That said, Stan’s Cafe offer some beautifully elegant moments, none more so than a woman in a black hijab watched over by another in the traditional white garb of the spa: dressing gown, towel-turban and face mask.

The Cleansing of Constance Brown also parts from other list shows by virtue of its selectiveness. We assume, initially, that this will be an arbitrary selection, perhaps falling under the umbrella of ‘instances from corridors’. Gradually, a definite bent appears in the content. All manner of cleaners appear: scrubbers, sweepers, sprayers, shiners; cleaners in tabards, in boiler suits, in protective clothing, in decontamination suits; single cleaners and cleaning teams.

Recurring so thoroughly, the become the central image from which to view others around them and quickly The Cleansing of Constance Brown becomes a meditation on the sacred and the profane, on protection and fear of others and our environment. Its priests, soldiers and security men; binmen, businessmen and white-trash all seem to pivot around the same territory.

So what of the all-seeing Constance Brown? She’s in there too, watching, witnessing. She’s the cleaner that steps into a security situtation. She’s the neighbour privy to an arrest. She’s the interviewee that sees a company in meltdown, frenziedly shredding its incriminating documents. No matter how hard we scrub, how concentrated our bleach, stains will remain. Even if no one else can see, they sear themselves in our own memories. Nothing is eradicable.

Here, we are the watching eyes behind one-way glass and the ears of the walls; the CCTV camera peering down. We are the collective conscience that never forgets. For seventy minutes, we are Constance Brown, watching and witnessing. Beyond the show, she is our independent adjudicator, observing all we do over our shoulder.

There’s a definite philosophy beneath The Cleansing of Constance Brown. (At least, I formed one from it. Others will see it differently.) But it is a piece whose matter remains just beneath the surface. You connect the dots you perceive and delve to the level you wish. How much depth is the piece itself, I’m not sure. Much of its reward comes from murkiness clearing as your interpretation forms. It offers instances, but doesn’t mine their significance in full. We do the hard work, which is fine, but I can’t help but feel that it’s possible to get further along the corridor than Stan’s Cafe themselves.

Till 19 March 2011


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