These Quicker Elements, a one-act play co-produced by Chaos X Dovetail Productions, is dedicated more to words on stage than the stage itself. With its online premiere in the early stages of post-pandemic reopening, the virtual performance is filmed against a blank backdrop of white walls and ceiling, with few props and barely discernible lighting effects. In their stead is a fragmented life story with sporadically inserted quotes, brokenly narrated by protagonist Lana (Marianne James), a young woman who has forgotten her own name and past. As she stares directly into the camera lens, anyone who projects the recording onto their bedroom wall in the dark is sure to feel overwhelmed.
The lack of interaction prescribed by the online format forbids conversation between Lana and her audience, a blockage that’s mirrored by the cited words’ failure to offer clarity on Lana’s lost life events.
The intimate medium shot of Lana in the frame achieves a level of immediacy otherwise unobtainable in theatre, where the audience sits metres away from the stage. As she presents us with a fragmented life story piece by piece, we watch her struggle with memory and seek refuge in lines from literature that divulge snippets of key events, but in their ambiguity makes the picture of her past more blurred than lucid. James’s use of tone and facial expressions is at once playful and precise, switching expertly between Lana’s confusion and excitement, between her darting eyes in anxiety and laughters in self-mockery, and thus covering the entire scope of the troubled character’s self-conflicting emotions. The camera, referred to as “glass” in the play, absorbs the character’s intense gaze and any verbalised thoughts, most of which incoherent. In return it feeds back into her reality obscure book quotes and lyric lines, which overlap with parts of her lost memory but merely at the margins, and offer no definitive answers. This sense of helplessness is further intensified as it transcends the fourth wall and gains purchase among the audience members who, finding themselves on the other side of the same mirror, stare into their screens and see Lana’s image instead of their own reflections, but at the same time know only their life stories and nothing of hers. Despite the onstage-offstage link established by reciprocal looks on opposite sides of the same looking glass, the lack of interaction prescribed by the online format forbids conversation between Lana and her audience, a blockage that’s mirrored by the cited words’ failure to offer clarity on Lana’s lost life events.
While the conceptual complexity of the play, inherent in its medium as a speech into a sometimes see-through fourth wall made of glass, and a one-way mirror at other times, might be intentional — the textual convolutions in the monologue itself may produce a level of opacity that’s unwanted. Writer George Rushton finds his inspiration in Samuel Beckett’s one-act monologue play, Krapp’s Last Tape, as well as Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Both are stories of characters trying to reconstruct their lost memories with written or audible materials. This approach of “making existing stories your own” is visibly adopted in These Quicker Elements whenever Lana leans forward and tries to read something off the camera lens, but the quoted texts themselves are not all well-known and oftentimes unclear in the context of the character’s narrative. The effort required to follow the esoteric sentences from the play’s bibliography also compromises the watching experience as a whole, as the spectator’s attention span is known to be much shorter on-screen than in reality. Since virtual theatre is on an anonymous basis, an early exit is made much easier: only a matter of closing a web window, and no mental and physical strain of stooping out of the theatre before curtains. Stage materials, as a result, would need to be more digestible to keep the audience focused, if not entertained.
Image Credit: Peter Todd.