Theatre Review






Ivana Muller

While We Were Holding It Together

Lilian Baylis Studio

6 and 7 February, 2009






1ary Couzens

A review by Alice MacKenzie for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Ivana Muller's While We Were Holding It Together feels like a game. A fascinating game in which audience and performers collude to see just how little both have to do to change a scene; how few words and how tiny a movement can spark a shared image in the room.

On stage the performers hold a pose, setting up a nineteenth century game of tableaux vivant - or living statue - in which the audience must guess what scene the players are trying to recreate. In a variation of this people watching the tableaux take it in turns to enter the scene and strike a pose to change the meaning of the picture. For example, a man miming holding a teacup may be transformed into a commuter if another actor comes and stands next to him miming holding a bus hand rail and looking bored. While We Were Holding It Together takes the game one logical step further. The tableaux itself never changes its form and - except for a brief place swapping moment somewhere near the middle - the performers never leave their pose. Instead they take it in turns to tell us what they imagine, transforming the way both the audience and performers perceive the scene through their words. The actors appear to respond with minute changes in their eyes and faces and when everything else is static for so long, every little movement takes on significance, every look is read in its new context. The text accompanying the performance presents it more concisely than I can:
            While We Were Holding It Together creates an image in becoming, always changing, depending on who is looking.
            Is it a rock band on tour?
            A picnic in the forest?
            A hotel room in Bangkok?
            We look, imagine and reinvent while searching for what is hidden and for what we want to see.
                                                (Text extracted from the program for While We Were Holding It Together
That "we" is important as Ivana Muller invites the audience to join in the creation, finishes off the scenes in their imaginations. For the game to work, the viewer needs to agree to play. The audience at the Lillian Baylis Studio did seem to want to play on Friday and there was a little buzz in the auditorium even before the lights went down. Even so, it would be very difficult to refuse to play when the performers presented the work so simply and with so little artifice, adding just enough detail to their almost deadpan words to make the audience laugh out loud as the image caught. So it is not just any hotel room in Bangkok, but a hotel room in Bangkok with a young Asian girl lying on the bed in a school uniform. And then later as the woman on the floor takes up the image: she is a young Asian girl lying on the bed in school uniform with long white socks. She wonders if she will have to buy yet another pair this month. The audience laugh as they recognise the image, feeling perhaps that we all see the same image - performers and audience alike - as like magic, the woman lying on the floor takes on a seductive air and the mood turns a little seedy. And yet nobody moves. And it is this that makes it work. How little does it take to build an instant story, a story that we all somehow recognise? It's like Muller has raided our collective, occidental image bank of films, books and everyday experience and thrown them at this one tableaux to see what sticks. And what power the delicious little details hold.

While We Were Holding It Together plays with the audience's perception of fantasy and reality as we are left to decide from "I imagine" how much is a real experience of the performer and how much is not. We imagine, or at least I imagine, that when a performer declares: "I imagine that it is the 46th minute of the performance and my elbow hurts" (an approximate quote), that they are telling the 'truth' both about the time and their real experience of holding a position for an extended period of time. We as the audience can imagine that holding your arm in the air for almost 45 minutes at a time really, really hurts. And even if you didn't know this, you can see in the performer’s body the painfully fascinating struggle as their limbs begin to shake, tremble and eventually convulse uncontrollably like water. Time is an odd thing to keep track of when watching a still image and it is in this trembling that we are reminded of the time that is passing, and also by the declarations of the performers every now and again that it is the 17th minute, the 46th, the 64th. Time keeping that not only serve to remind us of how much time has passed, but as the struggle to hold the positions becomes greater we are reminded how much time the performers have left.

Steve Heather's sound score of outdoor spaces and tennis matches is also used to play with and change the image of the tableaux. At one point quite far into the performance the noise of a helicopter about to take off plays into the space. One of the performers holding a particularly difficult pose had already started to shake uncontrollably to the point that his stomach muscles were twitching and little waves were passing through his body and out to his raised arm. By this point I could only watch him in his struggle, and so as the helicopter noises built and built and the time for take off approached it felt as though his body was the shaking body of the helicopter building to a release or an explosion. I waited and waited and.... no release... only a slow fade of the lights to black, a black out too quick for the performer to drop his arm. And so the struggles continued, wavering in intensity as the performers’ bodies and concentration changed. I felt an odd anti-climax and found myself wondering what it would have meant if he/I had been allowed that release at exactly the time that we needed one - a different piece perhaps.

Yet, "I imagine that it is the 46th minute of the performance and my elbow hurts" is still a part of the script however it may also relate to the reality of the performers experience. At the 46th minute in another performance of this piece, perhaps a different actor will say the same thing. In that sense it is no more real an image than "I imagine we are a rock group called Barbarella and the Rabbits." The words draw the audiences’ attention to different aspects of these scene and change what we see. The reality and fantasy of it rely as much on what the audience perceive could be real. The performers play the game simply and straightforwardly as to give the impression of spontaneity, of a 'real' game. The audience was left uncertain at points if this was a carefully constructed journey, or if it was the musings of the performers as they responded to each other, the audience and the moment.

While We Were Holding It Together plays so concisely and clearly with this game of fantasy and shared imagining that it left me feeling as though I was seeing something that I had known all along. 'Ah, of course, it is so clear and funny and obvious that what we perceive can be changed through the context of words and sound. I'm sure that was something that I had always thought about.' For 70 minutes Muller plays the same game, allowing it to vary and develop, adding a new way to play every now and again. The performers not only imagine the scene, they also imagine the audience. They imagine themselves in other performer’s bodies and eventually practise a bit of theatrical body swapping by lip-synching along to someone else's voice, transporting another person’s mind into a different body. Finally they imagine what may be left of themselves after they have left the space, what memories of them, what voices, and what images they leave behind. This subtlety of suggestion and feeling of a shared exploration is an interesting one. The piece wears its observations lightly and with humour, giving the audience room to feel that they are joining in a clever play, not being taught or demonstrated to. It shares this in a way with the works of another artist in Sadler's Wells' Paris Calling season, Jerome Bell. Muller resists the urge to over complicate an idea, or to add too many frills and the result is disarmingly funny and fascinating to watch.


Box Office: 0844 412 4300
Tickets: £12
Theatre: Lilian Baylis Studio, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4TN






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