The Body, ICA
Written for Exeunt
Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s work in progress The Body contains an intriguing theatricality and a growing sense of unease underlined by a fragmented, episodic structure. It is intimate, funny and moving, but it also considers its form carefully, testing the boundaries of each scene in a quest for liveness and intimacy. The Body rests in a space that travels from eerie fictionality to emotional abstractions: it places the audience in a set of live encounters, each with a different politics of engagement yet all structured around different anatomies of the body.
The central concern of the piece is with modes of representation; it bravely dissects and fragments our relationship to the body as a visual and physical construct, but one mediated both by personal experience and external factors. The intimacy of the performance space is toyed with, as the duo use its three-dimensionality to project and also create images, forcing us to see fractures of the body in an endless series of constructs: via memories, popular culture, scientific and emotional landscapes, fictional and abstract representations.
Barrett and Mari’s work is image-led, but it works with a distinctive aesthetic- they explore the meeting point between material and immaterial, but also dig deeper into the possibilities of the live moment. This performance uses a particular visual motif as emotional transaction: the doll, which from the onset gains a qualifier of unease. It’s such a static, lifeless object with the peculiar task of being a placeholder for a real person, or , in Nigel and Louise’s world, child. As such it’s a puppet waiting for its narrative, yet with a set of often disturbing (but humorous) features that give it a particular character from the onset- abstract, rather than physical, aural, rather than vocal. Here the doll is at times object, character, case study and protagonist, but it’s also a mode for the audience to access the discourse on the body in the contexts which Nigel and Louise lay out.
The piece travels through a series of emotional landscapes; some of the scenes are reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s own experiments in materiality, placing dolls in juxtaposition with reality, but also playing on the show’s conceit at the same time. At others, we’re invited to consider our own relationship to identity and materiality, and at others we’re presented with explorations of different body parts, from the eyes and hands through to skin and bones.
Barrett and Mari’s work deliberately travels across disciplinary boundaries, and in this case, the accumulation of all the live encounters makes for a pensive, nuanced and insightful show that makes us reconsider how we perceive our body and our identity, but also links these emotions and thoughts into a relational landscape, juxtaposing them with memories both real and fictional. Just like the dolls, we are also objects and subjects in a performance. What Barrett and Mari manage to create is a landscape filled with atmosphere and perspective; they approach their subject matter with care and intelligence but also allow themselves to explore the nature of an event, to jump to conclusions and play with expectations.
At times, meaning feels imposed on certain scenes whose formal play doesn’t hold substance, and in that way, the audience is at times removed from the fragmented narrative. The sense of unease and the eeriness of the dolls is not always explored to its fullest; at times, you want them to make more of the creepiness of the dolls. Yet in every scene of The Body lies a theatrical potential, and it is particularly its fragmentariness, its use of props as characters and protagonists, but also our uneven relationship to the two performers that makes The Body a valuable exploration of perception in the context of our contemporary culture.