If there’s one thing that London theatre group Dante Or Die’s new play most certainly is, it is moving. It is sometimes fully running. And always discomfortingly shifting.
Handle with care is the latest production from a project founded by Daphna Attias and Terry O’Donovan that creates, as they put it, “playful and emotionally driven site-sensitive productions”. And if you don’t know a thing about it, as I didn’t when I rolled up to a self storage lock-up in Poole with some art pals to see it, then I almost don’t want to say anything more, for fear of spoiling the unprepared effect.
Yes. A self storage lock-up. You did read right.
WALKING IT THROUGH
Presented where I saw it by Lighthouse Poole, with a script by Chlöe Moss, the piece follows a young woman, Zöe, through some twenty-five years of her life – a life of storing things and moving things and keeping things and pondering the value of things.
Now, if you’ve never been to a site-specific theatre piece, or installed art event, the unnerving effect of what it entails will have a special impact on you – but even if you’re an old art hand, which I have no doubt you are, the act of following players around their own stage, assured that you will be ‘invisible’ to the characters as they pass amongst you and move past you will still turn your radar up to eleven, sensitive to what the hell might happen next. Like any great art might. And more importantly, it’s brilliant fun.
The cheeky fellows from Dante Or Die, including Terry O’Donovan himself, playing a kind of linking motif character throughout, liked playing with the weirdness of this format for their audience. It is a bit of a fourth wall head trip. A structure that wasn’t just nicely playful, however, but was also about engaging our analysis of the three-dimensional journey of this story – like gaming, almost – and about connecting us to the characters. Rather personally in one case, as I believe I got dragged half into an embrace between two of the them in one scene. Saucy actory types.
It was nice to know nothing of what to expect. For all the installations and exhibitions I’ve hived off to and darted furtively into over the years, I’ve not been to many S-S live productions. Not like this. One of the last installation pieces on rails that I went to, I didn’t get to enjoy properly – because I was in it. Hazel Evans‘ splendid collage of works around the spaces of the Shelley Theatre, The Ink Mountains – but even as someone involved, I could sense something of the magic of moving an audience out of their seats and around your work. Suddenly they’re involved more on your terms than their’s.
STEPPING IT UP
So there you are in a self storage facility, perhaps for the first time in your life, and you are presented with people in character. What happens next? What even normally happens in these vaguely undead places? This is surely the riskiest of environments for an actor to work in, isn’t it? Which is undoubtedly why Dante Or Die go to work – how will each audience collectively react? Perhaps an especially English politeness helps here, because if there’s one characteristic in audience members that can fan the whiff of sadism (and masochism) the actors undoubtedly bring to a concept like this, its a slightly sweaty-palmed desperation to do the right thing in front of strangers. So we all tagged along, and tried to keep out of the way and keep up. And not join in, like an improv workshop.
Interesting to observe too that this new language for theatre, which each site-specific production has to intuitively teach its audience on the job fast, really does get people to change their perception while in there. As well as me, another audience member to be caught up in a deliberate close encounter with a character was long-time able performer, the storyteller and actor Michelle O’Brien – and both of us old hams looked a little embarrassed in our tiny entangled moments with the actors. Where normally either of us would play such a thing for laughs – and God knows this Get Out Of Performance Jail card is the basis of almost everything I’ve ever done – here, we felt bound to not break the spell. To not intrude on the characters with our own attention-handling. We felt oddly suspended between worlds.
It fast makes you wonder if we the observers are ghosts. Haunting these awkwardly private moments and spaces. Before beginning to wonder if it’s not us who are the ghosts, but the characters. Or, in the end, all of us. Spooky.
SHAKING IT OUT
Handle with care worked as a prime example of the need for balls-out creative confidence. Very nearly literally in one scene, in which I could sense every single audience member’s heightened radar firing off How The Hell Will I Handle A Naked Actor Three Feet From Me emergency memos to their mental war room for a moment there. More splendid sand shifting from the players, even in an especially moving scene.
But as much as boldness in the performance – and the cast gave soundly impressive performances, creating authentic private scenes for us with nowhere for an actor to hide – the success of something like this hinges on showing great care in the logistics. The choreography of light/sound/space had to be bang on point in a more fluid environment than a theatre. Here, the use of all elements was embedded in the core idea and brief of the script at every stage. It had some cleverly filmic touches in the uncomplicated technical solutions to communicating something set across many years – to the point where I didn’t think they needed to spell out the dates as they did. All of the tech, from music curation, to lighting, to costume changes, to physical devices between the actors, all of it was always to serve some human moment. Drawing in our mental connection even in these logistics as the production tapped into everyone’s unavoidable subconscious understanding of the language of edited screen storytelling.
For me, the art of theatre’s at its best when it hangs all script, tech and design off the spine of its idea to hit emotional truth.
A meticulous, immersive, site-specific drama gently tapping a rich feed from a dead good single idea. Handle with care did exactly this down to the details, with a lovely format twist at the end. For all the stuntery of it, the main thing you feel under the thinking is the ephemerality of us as human. The fragility of all the meaning in our lives. It’s touching. But I’m not sure it’s meant to be wholy uplifting; it’s meant to shift your perception. And the end result is, yes, moving.
For me, all work should aim to be this rounded in its execution. Dante Or Die, I think, slightly nerd-sessed over it – and that’s undoubtedly a large part of why I enjoyed it so much. Also, partly because for me it was a box to open that I had no idea about the contents of.
Anyone who loves theatre, writing and performance production should look out for DOD, and after this show, might leave saying “I see what you did. And there, of all places.”
HANDLE WITH CARE
Created by Dante or Die’s Co-Artistic Directors Daphna Attias & Terry O’Donovan with Chloë Moss
Directed by Daphna Attias
Text by Chloë Moss
Design by Jenny Hayton
Lighting Design by Zoe Spurr
Sound Design by Yaniv Fridel & JP Thwaites
Cast: Amy Dolan, Stephen Henry, Benjamin Humphrey, Elan James, Terry O’Donovan & Rachael Spence with Lucy Yates, Rachel Wrightt, Anushka Samarasinghe, Lucie Jenkins, Florence Maclennan, Stefy Barton & Maria Ahmed
Lighting Assistant: Roisin Dullard
Stage Manager: Philip Hussey
Assistant Stage Manger: Richard Irvine
Find out more at: danteordie.com