A review of Above Me the Wide Blue Sky at The Young Vic.
Most of the students I teach were born and raised in the city and, aside from holidays to exotic locations, have never left. They’ve never watched wild animals trotting, scurrying or flitting through woods and across fields, never smelt damp earth after spring rain, never run curious finger-tips over spongy beds of moss. Never gathered wild mushrooms, or been stung by nettles or scratched by briars as they hunt for the biggest, sweetest blackberries. Never peered into badger setts, warily perched on huge spoil mounds, or anxiously watched over a robin’s nest filled with perfect little blue eggs. They know literally nothing about the countryside.
This dearth of knowledge and experience seems so alien and puzzling to me, that I see it as a disability. I am kind. I hide my astonishment. Most city children will never experience these things, and it feels as if they are missing out on something I can never teach them. Something deep, and important – their lives and souls will never be illuminated by an affinity with the land. This sadness, lacking or losing connections to nature and the countryside, is what Above Me The Wide Blue Sky explores.
(A lamentation of swans)
The play is only forty five minutes long, with no interval, and stars one actress (who doesn’t really act) and one dog (who sleeps). It is more abstract, unconventional, art installation than play, however. It is performed in the round, on a grid of ice-like paving stones, planted with lights at different heights that occasionally plunge the entire room into darkness, or flash like memories flaring into sight. Large panels surround the audience, placing us in a room of scudding clouds. There is no narrative or plot. Instead the actress (Laura Cubitt) articulates a series of other people’s memories – pulling them from the ether above our heads, or drawing them from faces as if by telepathy.
I loved the set, and although we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to spend time in the space before the performance began, I appreciated that this would have been enjoyable. Watching the clouds is an experience I don’t seem to have time for anymore, but many of mine and Tom’s most treasured childhood-memories involve this. Hypnotic and thought-provoking, they send you into your own mind whilst simultaneously allowing you to spread it across the world.
The lights also captivated me. Tubes of frosted-glass crown tall metal poles, lightbulbs glowing from within like the golden hearts of flowers. I loved the idea that they glowed brighter and then faded like a memory swirling to the forefront of your mind, and the comparison between the short-lived beauty of flowers and memories that lose distinction with time.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the soundscape. It was derived from field-recordings and instruments, but their origins were then distorted though electronic transformations. Several times I found myself frowning in concentration, trying to distinguish and identify the origin of specific sounds, but my failure to do so only added to the sense of being lost in a dream or memory. The sound designers were inspired by a line from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, “A sound is heard in the distance, as if from the sky – the sound of a breaking string, dying away, sad”. The abstract sound they have created in response can be felt as much as heard, like the energy you perceive in the sky before a storm breaks; the heaviness of the air before the rain falls.
The purpose of Leuca the whippet’s presence was a question we all puzzled over, and everyone had a different response. Tom thought the dog’s calm, resting state was intended to induce a similar state in the audience; a visual cue making us more receptive to the experience. Katya felt it made us more receptive to the actress speaking as we more easily identified her as a character, as someone we might meet and converse with, so grounding and locating the abstract descriptions. Kaysea that the actress’ character wanted to retain a connection to nature and the animal-rearing that was implied in her memories, or to evoke an idea of the natural transforming into the unnatural, as humans rear greyhounds to race in psudeo-country urban racetracks, chasing fake rabbits. I wondered if we were not being encouraged to consider the memories recounted as belonging to Leuca (most of my friends thought this was mad though).
(Katy, Charles and I deep in discussion afterwards about serious, important things. Probably.)
The programme includes a John Berger quote from Opening A Gate which may shed some light on our question: “Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train dogs as guides”. The beauty of abstract art and theatre is that everyone responds differently, the intertextuality of their own experiences driving their interpretation along similar but separate paths.
(More of that serious conversation. Clearly.)
Above Me The Wide Blue Sky was certainly odd, and I can see why some reviewers labelled it “slightly precious” and “difficult”, but it was an interesting experience, emotive and thought-provoking. I’ll be keeping an eye open for Fevered Sleep productions in the future.