Abi.gifJóhann Jóhannsson – Forces Of Attraction

Portraits in Motion is a theatrical version of Humans of New York. Volker Gerling goes on long walks in Germany and gets by via the kindness of strangers. He photographs these people he meets and then makes the photographs into flipbooks, which he develops by hand. In his play, which is actually more of an explanation than a performance, he shows us his travelling exhibition, telling us stories of the strangers he meets on his travels. I saw it as part of Mayfest, the theatre festival that takes over Bristol for a snippet of Spring.

A week after seeing Portraits in Motion I learnt about the suicide of a girl from my school. I didn’t know her well but it still seems incomprehensible. She was a person I just assumed in the back of my mind would go on having a life- in the periphery of my own as we were never close- but at the centre of hers. It is awful to think what she suffered, and it is bizarre how the world just goes on when something so devastating has happened.

Gerling shows us each flipbook three times. He does it slowly, the brushing of the pages having the tingle effect of an ASMR video, or that feeling when someone would trace the alphabet down your spine in assembly. As you watch the face in the flipbook, thrown onto the projected screen, and see it break open into a smile you catch yourself, noticing how much you judged the severe face at first, not expecting such a stern person to exude such joy. I guess we never really know what’s going on inside someone.

I don’t mean to trivialise this tragedy by comparing the emotions it causes to those of a play, but in my mind it was a logical link and a way to think about what death actually means. Portraits in Motion makes you realise how much we can miss everyday, how much can be seen of a person in their laugh, and how much we should value those around us. Death, I think, makes us realise similar things. It makes us value our time with those we love more. It almost shocks you into telling someone how you feel about them, how special they are. Seeing this show and hearing this news made me want more memories to keep, more ways to remember people as we part this summer.

It made me want more of a grasp on my friends, I suppose.






I’m very lucky to have them. I love seeing them laugh.




It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15


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