Andrew Myers reviews two very different responses to the theme of solitude

Bev Lee Harling @ The House of Crusoe 11th April 2019

Vlad Miller @ The House of Crusoe 17th April 2019

As part of literary festival A Town Explores a Book, a celebration of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, four composers and one choreographer were invited
to lock themselves away and devise one-person shows in response to both the book and the enigmatic sculptures of Bernard McGuigan.

Bev Lee Harling

Bev Lee Harling posed the question, ‘if you have a connection to spirit, are you ever truly alone?’ 

She transformed her space into an enchanting island shelter, complete with sand underfoot and decorated with the spoils of a month’s beachcombing – bottles, driftwood, old shoes, seaweed, netting. This organic accumulation of layers mirrored the passage of time in the novel, an impression heightened by the presence of McGuigan’s sculptures, which, hidden among the detritus, seemed like monuments from an earlier civilization.

A glass roof created a sense of being out in the open, leading to a moment of spellbinding beauty towards the end of the show when the rising moon became visible. 

And the set was no mere backdrop. Props became instruments, and the music grew out of the surroundings. There were ingenious moments of verisimilitude – the creaking of organ bellows became the sound of a boat, seeds in an old drum skin the rush of waves. 

A focus on domestic activity as a means of staving off loneliness, such as Crusoe’s laborious efforts to bake a single loaf of bread, undercut the more macho elements of the book.

Bev subverted the theme of isolation by involving the audience throughout – a daring approach that certainly paid off. One absolute highlight of the evening was a duet between Bev’s violin and a Wellington boot, played with virtuosic aplomb by an audience member. 

Indeed, at the heart of Bev’s show was her inspired and endlessly inventive music, creating a kaleidoscopic variety of sound from seemingly limited resources. Whether on violin, organ or playing a jerry-built drum kit, the music throughout had a fragile simplicity lifted by touches of sophistication, crowned by her entrancing, lyrical singing.

Bev’s show culminated in an enthralling meditation on memory, time and solitude, recalling time spent alone as a child. Defoe’s novel intersected with Bev’s personal history, as passages from the book were sung over old cassette tape recordings of Bev singing at the age of two.

If Bev’s response to isolation was to turn outward to environment and audience, Vladimir Miller’s reaction was to turn inwards. In his words, “there’s no doubt that enforced solitude is terrifying and surviving it a tall order.” 

Vladimir Miller with Bernard McGuigan sculpture
PICTURE: Anastasia Miller

Fear was indeed the keynote. The space itself was far less welcoming than Bev’s – audience members had to negotiate a shipwreck of overturned furniture to find themselves a place to sit. In almost complete darkness, illuminated only by flashes of torchlight, McGuigan’s sculptures became oppressive totems; angry gods, as opposed to the almost companionable entities in Bev’s show.

For Vlad, solitude undoubtedly unleashes inner demons, but also an inner child – his shelter, a makeshift tent, evoked memories of childhood games. There was an unhinged, manic energy to the performance which was at once unsettling and exuberant. There was surreal shadow-play as Vlad used a torch to project his profile onto a sheet, babbling in made-up languages all the while. 

The impression of a fractured self intensified as Vlad began to interact with a film of himself projected into the corner of the room – a virtual distorting mirror.

But this wasn’t exclusively about alienation. Again, one could only marvel at the musical inventiveness. In more peaceful moments, Vlad’s lyrical piano playing came to the fore, asymmetrical rhythms brilliantly evoking the sounds of the waves. There were striking interactions with ghosts and memories: Vlad improvised on flute over a tape of his grandfather’s poetry, and over pre-recorded solos from trumpeter Hutch Demouilpied and, in a nice touch, Bev herself on violin. 

On the surface, these two interpretations of the festival brief could not have seemed more contrasting, yet they were united by their life-affirming creativity and imagination. Two truly memorable evenings.

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