Perhaps because of the overwhelming rhetoric depicting art as eternally persistent, the thought of lost art and lost artwork is most of the time distant, unusual and distressing to our mind. Yet particularly for some art forms – one thinks for instance of mute cinema – the amount of artworks lost or destroyed is actually fairly high; we know of lost plays and lost novels, and it could be argued that impermanence is actually a natural feature of drama and performance art, which exists only in the time and space in which it is presented to its audience, to then irretrievably disappear (even a filmed performance is usually only one in a row of non-identical iterations, most of which will not survive). A thread of thought concerning lost art and lost performances runs through Phantom Rides Again at various levels. The work itself is in a sense a recovery of an original from 2008, Phantom Ride (through recovery might not be the best word for it: remembering and rethinking might come closer), which in turn was an attempt at evoking the lost works of filmmaker William Haggar. In this new iteration, then, we have a work thinking back on a ‘lost’ performance which tried to bring back a semblance of ‘lost’ narrations. It is a reconstruction in progress, and it looks like one: perhaps this is the reason why all performers wield hammers, somewhat ominously and yet without ever using them.
Phantom Rides Again stands then squarely in the field of the metatheatrical. Its actors are playing actors, trying to give the audience an impression of a narration that is no longer there, or rather of what scraps and snippets of it they can themselves bring to mind. Heralded by titles on placards, not always necessarily matching with the actual action described, the sections of the performance are vivid but uncertain descriptions of individual scenes, separated forever from an unimaginable whole. Most of them are humorous, and a good number gruesome. The somewhat cynical sense of humour pervading the whole production seeps into its tone as well, colouring the indecisiveness of the narrator concerning the story they are telling: the line of events is often disjointed, the names of characters are routinely forgotten, interventions by fellow performers might not be entirely welcomed by the main narrator. This gives the whole piece a distinctive atmosphere, which teeters for the whole duration between the anxious and the amused, at more than one point partaking of both at the same time.
All performances are excellent, and manage to convey a rather difficult tone, neither overly serious nor openly farcical, with a matter-of-fact delivery that comes across as deliberately alienating. There is great stage chemistry between all performers, which is a necessary requirement in a work that entails a certain deal of improvisation. The choice of alternating without translation or explanation between English and Welsh is also of great interest, particularly because it colours the narration and forces the audience to enter a mindset where they have to accept that snippets of what is happening might be lost, depending on one’s command of either language, but a sense of the whole will nonetheless be preserved – as might happen with a work on film that might be damaged or lost only in part. The integration of BSL, while equally interesting, appears somewhat shoehorned into the rest – it would have had to be more frequent or consistent in its treatment to be truly as effective as the main language-switching.
Phantom Rides Again is an experiment that demands much of its audience even before it starts, by pushing it into a space that has no seats nor a clear place for it, and then by generating an alienating atmosphere where things are presented but not explained, and it is required to simply go with the flow. This is deliberate, and the results are for the most part successful, sometimes fascinating, at all times interesting. The general result is a narration with a heightened awareness of its impermanence, with performers who know they’re standing on quicksand and endeavour to show glimpses of something through a veil of sorts, with a lingering sense that they themselves are at times not sure of what they’re looking at. It is a very interesting example of the less obvious ways of playing with narratives and narrators, and a work to approach with an open mind.
Until December 8