January 26-28 Roundhouse
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
Death is everywhere in Endings. A gradual kind of death, one that allows for reflection. It’s what the piece is about and it’s what’s happening on stage: passing, decaying, dissolving.
There are three people on stage. There are several antique record players, black vinyl discs, several old reel-to-reel tape decks, magnetic tape partly spooled out of one of them, a sound mixer of some kind way at the back, and some very modern looking lighting instruments hanging off pulleys in mid air. There is air. There is sound coming into being, vibrating the air and my ear drums. And there is sound fading away: recorded sound issuing from one or more of the record players with their built-in speakers, or from the tape decks with their fragile magnetic tape layered with recorded voices that everyday decompose just a little more, returning to the air and the earth. And there are the performers’ voices issuing from vocal folds and resonating through cartilage and bone — flesh and bone stretched and rattled and, like the other things in the room, slowly losing their regenerative powers.
In the after-show talk songwriter-performer Paddy Mann spoke of the fragility of the record players and tape decks. The show has been performing on-and-off for several years and like the human stories of passing, the machines too are coming to the end of their life-spans. The performers must take greater care with them lest they expire prematurely — that is, before the performance ends or before the current tour is concluded. For these reasons the show in its current incarnation also seems to be reaching the end of its natural life.
Mann has a voice that hangs ever so delicately on a precipice. It contains the weight of loss, but in the singing releases that weight. The simplicity and restraint with which Mann’s voice escapes his body and dissipates into space makes no particular demand of the audience and asks for no particular allegiance. But it does accumulate. By the final song, Flowers, I feel a gentle but paradoxically seismic emotional shift within me.
This understated, gradual transformation is of a piece with the whole of Endings. We hear the recordings of those who have been in the process of dying and those who have attended them. The performers — whether at a turntable, playing and replaying words captured in the resin, or speaking directly to us — tend to hover in the softer, darker edges of light. A suspended lighting instrument is given a push, setting it swinging above the performers, human or machine, sliding light and shadow past facial contours and other surface textures. Like memories or ghosts, these figures often feel like suggestions rather than fully formed beings. There is a sense of slow arriving, rather than a pushing toward any endings.
At the beginning of the show a recorded voice addresses “dad.” Creator and performer Tamara Saulwick also addresses “dad.” Later, dad, recorded near the end of his life, addresses Saulwick and the rest of us. He seems at peace, accepting his imminent passing. He says he expects nothing after death. Saulwick also seems accepting. But as a curious artist, she has expanded her research to include the questions, ‘Now that dad is actually dead, is he still at peace with the fact? What if there is more than nothingness, and what if dad is wherever that is?’
So she goes to a trance medium to try to make contact. Saulwick handles this bit of narrative recreation beautifully. She shifts between roles as querent and medium, performing both without passing judgement on either. I found it impossible to determine whether Saulwick thought trance mediums were a hoax or not. So I was left with the visual and auditory affects of the performer putting herself through a sequence of physical and vocal actions that might or might not have led to making contact with her deceased father. In the only sequence of the show in which electronic sound and light (courtesy of sound designer-performer Peter Knight and lighting designer Ben Cobham) are raised to a deliberately uncomfortable pitch, the disturbing possibility that all is not well for dad in the after-life is given expression: Saulwick seems to be burning in a bath of red light and buffeted by demonic sound waves.
The echo of Saulwick-in-trance during my viewing of Endings, becomes more powerful with each day that passes, as Saulwick’s uncategorizable performance shapes and reshapes itself in my neural circuitry. Like the show itself, like the passing of beloved friends and family, it lingers insistently but on the edge of light, consciousness, and memory.
There are so many kinds of deaths. Endings doesn’t pretend to address them all. It’s mostly about a father’s death, a ‘natural’ death from aging, and a daughter’s processing of it.