Low-Budget Hollywood Disaster Special: Olwen Davies, fourbeatwalk and Andy Field (Part One)

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Olwen Davies, fourbeatwalk and Andy Field Double Bill (Part One)

It was impossible to foresee that I’d come to be writing up a Hatch double bill with a strong ‘disaster movie’ theme on the same evening that the single most frequently destroyed city in popular imagination, New York, braced itself for the impact of an all too real (rather than CGI generated) hurricane, whose heavily documented progress looked more a collection of outtakes edited from The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield and Independence Day than genuine news footage. Perhaps that gives the imagined disasters of both segments of this Double Bill (not to mention the ‘disaster bar’ set up by fourbeatwalk in the main ground floor project space at Primary to bridge between the two) some of the qualities of a precognitive dream?

Still, it all begins sweetly enough, with Olwen Davies presenting Fridge Logic at Broadway, its second appearance at Hatch, after an earlier outing at Fresh in Leicester a year or so ago. It’s a very in-between kind of performance, existing as both live work and film simultaneously, as something both present to and removed from its audience, as a piece that generates an air of Hollywood glamour even as its whole premise is to undermine that projection. Performing in a small constructed set of cardboard boxes, balloons and props at the back of the cinema, Davies has her back to the audience and instead engages with a single camera, mounted on a tripod, that relays her performance on a cinematic scale to the screen in front of us.

The effect is to magnify her visual impact, while simultaneously creating a set of expectations that her performance refuses to oblige: she is, on one level, like someone making a YouTube video in her own bedroom, trying to project some kind of star quality, acting out formulaic scenes like the always-deferred musical number (from Cabaret) or the fight with a villain (a face drawn onto a green balloon), or a reprise of a ‘glamorous’ conversation from Edward Scissorhands (cut short by an attempt to dress up a pink balloon with an earring), while mostly communicating a sense of insecurity, a need to be liked and a personal isolation that grows increasingly literal as the piece goes on.

Despite making a date (via mobile phone) with a random audience member, her one attempt to step down from the screen reveals her smallness and vulnerability, so she chooses to return to its relative safety and perform a ‘death scene’, in which we’re asked to imagine her holding a balloon, rising far above the earth, then losing her grip and falling: not back to earth, but into a constellation, where she remains suspended, embarrassed and alone, for what it’s implied will be forever. Fridge Logic is a short piece, sprinkled with warm humour, that creates a tautly structured metaphor for the many ways in which contemporary culture – its social media, celebrity obsessions and filtering of reality through digital images – fuels feelings of inadequacy and disconnects people from the relationships that might otherwise counter them.

Following Davies’ suspension among the stars she’d aspired to join, despite being – by her own account – neither sexy, glamorous or confident enough to pass muster, the audience enters its own in-between space and takes a bus across town to Primary, the location where Andy Field’s Zilla! Part One is set to make its own exploration of the collision between cinema and reality. On arrival we walk into what seems like the aftermath of a natural calamity of some sort, as though we’ve suddenly become extras in a TV remake of Day of the TriffidsThreads, or Quatermass. Posters in the bathrooms and around the bar warn us of contaminated water and ask that we wait for further information; ‘End of the World’ pies are on sale; there’s home brewed ginger beer and projections (courtesy of Kneel Before Zod) showing everything from old news footage to 1970s and 80s TV road safety campaigns.

When we do pass through the disaster bar into the main space, what we’re first confronted with is a kind of installation, lines and lines of tiny lego figures, each one placed behind a card outlining its role in some as yet unknown story: one is An Unlikely and Rather Surprising Hero, another A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a third A Small Girl Looking for Her Lost Dog, a fourth A TV Anchor Wearing a Corset, a fifth A Washed-Up Boxer Who Can’t Forget the Moment He Threw the Fight… So they go on, dozens of them facing the tips of our boots in neat lines on the floor, each a riff on some stock figure you half remember from a film or human interest story, some funny or incongruous, others touching or sincere.

Walking between the rows turns the audience into a crowd of Gullivers on a first look around Lilliput, or perhaps Godzillas and King Kongs in our own right, one misplaced step enough to make each one of us the hurricane, earthquake, giant dinosaur or meteorite that could prematurely wreak the kind of havoc on this small world that will almost certainly unfold later. There seem to be no casualties at this stage, though, so we take our seats and wait for the performance to begin. When it does, male and female voices begin a slow, laconic introduction to an unnamed city, one we are asked to  imagine we are descending towards from the place among the stars where Olwen Davies had earlier left herself suspended.

As one voice zooms in, and the other counterpoints it with some fragment of history or geography, a picture emerges of a very average kind of city, one with ancient and modern districts, unspecified industries and leisure quarters, a plethora of characters going about their everyday business, which seems more or less identical to our own everyday business. The two performers take turns in speaking and drawing a map onto an area on the floor, the city taking shape verbally at roughly the same rate that it manifests itself visually. Once it is complete, each of us selects a character from one of the many rows we’d examined earlier to represent us in what is to follow: to be our avatar in the city being described.

As we step forward to carefully place these figures onto the city plan that’s been sketched out for us (for the record, I choose The Ghost of the Philosopher William James and put him into the dead centre of a large seemingly empty area right in the middle of the map) and once more avoid treading on those tiny characters still arrayed in their many neat lines, things take a turn for the suspenseful: a pair of giant and extravagantly furry slippers turn one performer into a kind of Godzilla, who is blindfolded and guided by her companion in a series of stomps back and forth across the map. Many small figures are crushed or knocked flying while others miraculously survive unscathed. We hold our breaths to see which of us has fallen victim to the devastation.

From here, it’s a process of accounting for the aftermath. Prostrate figures are claimed and their fates noted, insofar as they are known: Crushed in a Dinosaur Stampede; Died Saving an Old Lady from a Burning Vehicle; Disappeared During a Bridge Collapse; Died Peacefully in His Sleep. The survivors, meanwhile, get through the immediate devastation but find that concern for their welfare slowly fades as the cameras leave and their disaster is replaced by others in the rolling news cycles. They are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild. Their fate, we’re told, will be the subject of Zilla! Part Two, which happens to be scheduled for the next Hatch Double Bill at Broadway on November 9th. By then, of course, the real world context in which the work exists will have changed again.


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