Thursday, 11 September 2008

*** 'helium' (slung low)

slung low
at barbican

Bella’s grandfather keeps sending parcels to her. Inside each parcel is a helium balloon… This imaginative installation tells the story of Bella’s quest to discover her grandfather’s hidden past. From the inside of a Lancaster Bomber, to a magic show in 1920s London, we uncover the mysteries concealed by a series of helium balloons.Combining live and digital performance Helium investigates guilt, responsibility and the true meaning of ‘release’. As the performance unfolds in a series of boxes, each audience member has a short adventure of their own.

post script:

the day after seeing this show i open my the box and and take out the helium balloon. and with joy i discover that it is tied with a white ribbon to the storybook of the show. there is a programme inside too. and as i read the story with the remembered images from the show i do have a very special experience. and i am right that there is much density in this story and that i have absorbed only parts of it, and i love this company for anticipating this and giving me the story to find at home and discover fully ...

in the Pit foyer we're greeted by a couple of men in blue overalls from H Removals who check our names, give us a lollipop and a small card inviting us each to a birthday party, and a list of:
Things we'd like you to know;
- close all doors behind you.
- what you save with cheap boxes you'll pay for in breakages.
- that those ignore you aren't being rude it's just that they can't hear you.
- never pack explosives, combustibles, food of any kind, liquids or pets.
- always press the switch before going in. Once.
- pack all boxes to capacity.
- it's cracking to see you.
with love, H. Removals

and then one by one we are met by our H Removals guide, who sits us down and runs us through a very reassuring briefing about what to do and what to expect. Of course I knew when i booked this that i would quite probably be having to manage my bloody claustrophobia, and so it was as i was led from one small room to the next, and this was a lot easier than it might have been thanks to this expert guiding. At the same time the style and tone of this did make me feel like i was supposed to be 5 years old, which was a little unhelpful to my experience of the show. swings and roundabouts then, tricky to get right, and way better to overdo than underdo guiding as we know to our great cost, but perhaps they could relax a bit of the 'we soooo want you to have a great time' approach. a quibble.

so in the first room i am alone with Bella, who is on the phone to her family, in her recently deceased grandfather Max's room. We then hear through the radio Max in conversation with his gargoyle alter ego? twin? nemesis? satanic master? from them i learn that i am an eavesdropper and necessary to Bella being able to get the story of her grandfather's past. There is a strong sense of clues being laid down and a puzzle that i will have to try and solve. this room is intimate and the experience of being alone with a performer in a small room familiar for me after experiencing 'masque of the red death', but it's interesting to notice just how fast i have learned to become easy in this new audience~performance relationship and wonder how differently it plays with different individual audients.

my guide opens the door and - leaving Bella reading her grandfather's book - leads me out from this first room, hands me a box of popcorn, and steers me into a model movie theatre very reminiscent of the ones janet cardiff & george bure miller have made. A film is playing of 'the great Garibaldi or some such a magician, who appears shoots himself when his card guessing trick goes wrong, altho he reappears later saying something i don't remember (i've since re-seen it on the promo video and been reminded that he's saying "course it's frightening. that's the real trick: making what inside outside". meanwhile max and his gargoyle are back in conversation from the speaker box and talking about me and to me and this dominates my interest. There is a sense of more clues being laid out, and instructed to look up i find a joker playing card attached to the ceiling by a sign to 'take this card'. i do. the experience of this room is mostly confusing - maybe i haven't been concentrating enough or have become too distracted between film watching, conversation listening, popcorn munching and realising i can relax enough to know that my claustrophobia isn't getting the better of me. one of the things i do enjoy in all the rooms is that the time in each of them is long enough to get beyond the immediate novelty and begin to immerse in what is happening: in fact i could have enjoyed much longer (so it must have all been successful to have over-ridden my small space panic!)

so to the third room - the belly of a WWII bomber, with with one of the radio ops. this time i've been instructed to put on the headphones and to 'be brave'. the airman is trying to have a radio conversation with a friend called Duffy (martyn is convinced they used his name from the booking, and change it for each person, but i'm not so sure). the airman makes contact with Duffy, tells him that he's going to be a father, loses contact, and once again this is being over scored by the voices of Max and his gargoyle. then the floor falls open to show me film of a plane eye's view of the bombing of Dresden (martyn told me this - i wasn't clever enough to get this specific fact), and from this bombed and burning cathedral leaps into the foreground the gargoyle speaking directly up into our bomber but i'm so busy noticing effect of the trap door appears to have not worked smoothly and wondering if this is all i'm supposed to be being brave about and wishing it was just that bit more convincing that i don't remember what he says (but again from the promo video i've picked up the message "don't leave me behind"). i'm also still feeling under some pressure to solve a puzzle, pass a test, and perhaps this interferes with my focus, but again i think that given more time to become immersed and/or maybe less apparent density of information to be processed from Max and the gargoyle i could have quite fully entered into a belief of this world: there was so nearly the possibility of feeling i am in this bomber in radio silence with this airman whose friend has probably just been shot down.

'harrowing isn't it' says my guide as he takes me to the next room and i feel guilty because no it hadn't been really, although i think perhaps this comment was the key to release me from trying to solve the puzzle and licence me instead to simply bear witness, and this made the last two rooms easier to just be in. The penultimate 'box' is a hospital room, where i come face2face with the gargoyle, dressed as an orderly cleaning up the room, Max's voice as an image across the heart monitor screen. i think i missed important parts of the story in this room, except to pick up that because i - as the eavesdropper - was there still there listening then Bella was still turning the pages of the book in which she was learning this her grandfather's story, and that somehow during the bombing i'd just seen, Max and the gargoyle had become inextricably linked together, and that now that Max was dying the gargoyle was turning back into stone and suffering visibly as this happened. i don't know why Max laughs so maliciously while this happens, and somewhere too i am still bothering away trying to identify whose famous voice Max has (patrick stewart in fact - and a less famous voice would have saved me this distraction).

then the last room is a white space with a moving projection of cathedral arches and stained glass windows. this is the easiest room to just absorb the last of the story - a memory of Max's - that the gargoyle doesn't have because it was the one and only time time Max forgot him - of Bella letting go her helium balloon and it floating free. there is some association being made between the pages of the book of this story now heard and the helium balloons being set free and at last as Max fades away so too can the gargoyle and they can still together float free. and we watch a projection of Bella collecting her grandfather's snowscene and leaving his now packed away room for the last time, Max is finally released from his wartime guilt.

i am led out from the removal box rooms and on the way back to the foyer my guide gives me my own box with my name and inside my own white helium balloon, to go with my lollipop and my joker playing card. so it does nearly all fit: the birthday party was Bella's where she released her helium balloon, the lollipop i decide is simply a toy to help keep me and other anxious eavesdroppers calmed (and actually it works for this - the thought that i could suck it soothes despite the fact that i hate the things). the joker playing card and the suicidal magician remain an enigma for me i'm afraid.

this is a good-hearted and genuine show, warmed hugely by the care and thought that has obviously gone in to making it safe and accessible for us as individual audients travelling through new performance territories. and i love that this company is a diverse group of deliberately mixed artists and this fusion has gone into its devising and performance (just as we aspire so hopefully to do one day). it must be expensive to run because of its low audience numbers and high guiding team. it is limited by the low level of technology - the projections are not as good as we now see them in theatres and galleries, and the sound suffered for me because of the high high precision in janet cardiff & george bures miller's work.

and so from reading later i learn all the details that the above narrative of my experience has troubled over, missed or muddled:

~ the gargoyle is more precisely a grotesque - "a gargoyle spouts water".

~ 'the Great Capaldini''s show is a birthday treat for the eight year old Max, and he is the boy at the centre of the botched card trick. which in fact isn't botched at all but introduces us to Max's propensity to feel intense guilt: it is his fault the card trick has gone wrong. and the magician is not suicidal - this is simply part of the drama of the act.

~ the young airman is Max himself of course and the gargoyle chooses him to leap into from his burning cathedral in his burning city. and his friend Duffy is Duffy and not just Duffy for m duffy and me.

~ the restoration of the dresden cathedral brought no redemption for Max, it did not re-make the gargoyle's home nor offer any passing on for either of them.

~ we are invited to share this story. this is no longer just Max's story for Bella, but for us all to put our faces and names and memories and imaginings to: "just as Bella has my diary, you have what you have just experienced..."

"thank you for coming" the company write on the last page.
thank them for making such a special, wonderful and memorable experience.

but i look forward to what they make next ....

see also composer/sound artist Heather Fenoughty's blog about her making for this show:


heatherfenoughty said...


My name's Heather Fenoughty and I'm the composer/sound designer member of the Slung Low team.

It's really great to hear all your comments about the show, what you liked about it and your criticisms are very constructive!

I wondered if you would be interested in linking to my blog, or the entry I've written about the process I went through making Helium with the Slung Low team -


mark trezona said...

Hi Heather

yes yes of course
it's a fascinating read, not least because it corresponds with an increasingly strong interest i am growing in sound and its place and potency in performance. so it is very good to make this 'first contact' (sorry - couldn't resist) with you and know more particularly about your work.

i congratulate you hugely on what you have achieved in and for this show. (and i'm glad you found my carping constructive!) the show has stayed with me and returns in little waves.

i would certainly look forward to hearing about any of your work in the future...

all the very best

heatherfenoughty said...

Hi Mark,

That's great - glad you enjoyed the article and the show so much. In a meeting we (Slung Low) had with The Lowry in Manchester yesterday we talked about these experiential performances being 'unforgettable', so it's wonderful to know that it keeps coming back to you!

We're also all about the immersive experience, and from my point of view the sonic conventions of film feel more appropriate than the more subtle and possibly sidelined effect of conventional theatre sound.

Speaking of the Lowry... watch out for one of Slung Low's next epic productions being staged there next year....