First published in The Times, Tuesday February 2 2016
Memento mori – “remember that you must die” – is a familiar theme in art, signifying those skulls, hourglasses and clocks that remind us of our mortality. This new performance from Jenna Watt, the award winning playwright and director, similarly grapples with questions of mortality and the search for meaning, fulfilment and spontaneity in a finite life. The dash of the title refers to the alarmingly short line that joins up the dates on a coffin or memorial plaque.
As performed by Watt and her co-deviser Ashley Smith, the production is an intelligent, enjoyable patchwork of images and stories showing the ways in which people become trapped by their own lives, at times almost inadvertently, and the small epiphanies that free us up to make changes. While much of the presentation is wry and understated, there are moments within the hour-long performance that bring us up short.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Watt and Smith suffuse the piece with the sounds, voices and blather that make up the background noise of modern life. The action is repeatedly interrupted by the blare of an alarm clock. The performers trawl through every motivational cliché beloved of office huddles, from “fortune favours the brave” to “we’re ripping up the rule book”. Every so often the pair break off to perform exercises aimed at improving sexual prowess and preventing double chins. The staging – a matrix of taped-off squares and circles that recalls a circuit board – reinforces the sense of human beings as cogs in a machine.
There are pleasing switches from major to minor throughout. The harrowing tale of George, a man so raddled by the stress and regimentation of the workplace that he suffers chest pains and panic attacks, is thrown into relief by a rendition of Phil Collins’s Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now), about an attempted reconciliation, in the style of solemn performance poetry. The sequence in which Watt puffs coloured smoke into the air through a funnel is disarming, but it also provokes some nervous laughter.
While the production features an over-reliance on the rather obvious images of matches burning down and fires going out and is lumbered with a passage of unnecessary exposition towards the end, on the whole Watt and Smith’s piece makes its points clearly and with a light touch. If the busy mix of ideas and styles sometimes feels a little disjointed, a more fluid execution will likely build as the show makes its way around the country on tour.
Touring to February 13. Jennawatt.co.uk