Reviews of the Ephemeral

Review: Landscape II by Melanie Wilson

In Performance Poetry on October 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

– reviewed by James Webster

The thrum of deep base sound ebbs away, leaving only a ring of tinnitus. The lights retreat to a dim glimmer, the shivers stop running down my spine, and the audience audibly exhale. We’re about two thirds of the way through Melanie Wilson‘s haunting multimedia poem, and she’s holding us on a knife edge.

When we reach the end, spines thoroughly chilled and edges of our seats somewhat worn, the silence is palpable. There’s a distinct feeling that we’ve just been taken on a journey, carried away by the tides of Wilson’s story, submerged in her words and soundscapes. This mesmeric story merges together three different strands of narrative (a photographer, her great-great-grandmother and the woman she photographed in Afghanistan) that flow in and out of one another, all layered over a rich and discordant soundscapes and vividly absorbing video.

It’s a stunner of a show, overwhelmingly immersive, fascinatingly reflective and frightfully tense.

A variety of tools to shape a show …

Wilson uses some incredible technology to shape the show. Evocative images, in beautifully rendered video, are projected onto the massive screen that makes up the venue’s entire back wall, and they draw your gaze, showing you some key imagery, while also dancing round the edge of the story (we see feet, hands, the back of a neck, a cloaked figure, close-up of a spider’s web and the Devon landscape in first person). The electric cacophony of Wilson’s soundscape surrounds us, pulses under our skin and vibrates through our bones, as it plays with contrasting harmony and discord, noise and silence, thickening into an almost physical atmosphere around us. And the sounds of the story (a fox’s yelps, the click of a camera shutter, the bumps and groans of an old cottage, the sound of steps behind us) leap out at us at unexpected moments, provoking repeated shocks of static up the spine and surprised gasps of fear. The set, too, plays its part, with a hardwood floor, table full of letters, photos and technical equipment; it gives proceedings an intimate feel, as if you begin the show sitting in someone’s living room, with Melanie Wilson seated behind the desk, whispering to you through the microphone …

There’s an element of the puppet-master around Wilson’s performance …

As she sits behind the desk almost spider-like, visibly operating the sound and video, shooting out strands of story to ensnare us. All the aspects, the video, sounds and Wilson’s own voice, come together into one powerfully moving tale, each element blending with the others to enrich the sensory experience that presses in on us. It’s consummately done, Wilson’s carefully controlled voice always informing, but never overpowering the visuals and audio, instead it seems to drift out, directly into our brains, falling to a taut whisper and rising to fraught emotion.

It all streams very nicely around the narrative – and around us too – with moments of quiet reverie contrasting against the sudden bursts and threat that reaches into your gut and tugs at you. Together, the visuals and sounds merge with her voice, getting under our skin and leaving it tingling as we’re immersed in the story and the character.

It’s a story that you can lose yourself in …

The writing is clever and thoughtful, constructing a stirring and sparse language with a fragile kind of poetry to it. It’s kind of haunting and kind of gorgeous, leaving a lot of feeling unsaid behind the words, feelings that are fleshed out by the show’s multimedia elements. To use her own words, her turns of phrase “radiate their secrets like old gold”, trickling into our ears and then later building to a rushing surge for the piece’s finale.

The pacing and structure of the show is just right, each stream of the story has just enough meat on its bones to keep you involved. Wilson fills in the blanks of the three women’s backgrounds gradually, like a puzzle, letting them gradually build, before the different strands come together in a crashing crescendo.

And as they all come crashing over us, the sound builds into a rhythmic thump that comes up from the floor and vibrates through your bones into your chest, while the words wash over you and the video flashes with its interconnected imagery and it feels like we’re caught. As if we’re held in this intense moment and suspended in Landscape II’s narrative. But it passes, and the show ends on a quiet, contemplative note that leaves us with plenty to mull over.

Overall, this is an always involving and often scarily intense show …

It tells an intricate, otherworldly and profoundly moving story. While its high concept may not be to everyone’s taste, everyone will agree that the tech is phenomenally done, and it is definitely a hugely enjoyable and interesting way to spend an evening.

Landscape II is on at the Burton Taylor Studio tonight as part of its ongoing tour (presented by Fuel) that also takes in Exeter, Crewe, Brighton, Coventry and more. I strongly advise you to catch it if you can.

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