Review of Five Plays of Death: Deeply human, tremendeously beautiful
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Review of Five Plays of Death: Deeply human, tremendeously beautiful

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By Mariken Lauvstad, Scenekunst.no

In the same way that death is difficult to represent through art, really astonishing perfoming arts is difficult to find words for. More beautiful performing arts than “Five plays of death” is hard to find.

No living human beings has insight into the essence of death, thus it is impossible to represent. But maybe that is also why art and death is so closely connected. Apparantly, we seek art as a way of uncovering death, to give it shape. Art history is full of symbolic metaphors, mythologization and personifications of death; many have ended up commersialized and clichés rendered harmless. Regardless of which path you choose with death as subject, to convey it is a very demanding task.

For De Utvalgte, death has been kind of an artistic and thematic and underlying driving force. In Five plays of death, it has been pushed forward more clearly. The performance is a further development of Ingeborg Eliassens concept “Old” from 2004 and is dedicated to Kari Winge Onstad (02.24.41 – 03.24.20), who died suddenly when working with the performance.

The core members of De Utvalgte are Boya Bøckman, Kari Holtan, Anne Holtan, Torbjørn Davidsen and Anne Gerd Grimsby Haarr, but the company cooperates with external artists according to the nature of each project. I Five plays of death, the company has among others cooperated with experts in cybernetics and robotics from NTNU in Trondheim. De Utvalgte has a distinctive expression in the borderland between performance, visual arts and theater, and has been pioneers when it comes to developing 3D technology as scenography and dramaturgical component.

The simple and mundane, against the big, universal Upon attendance in the foajè of Black Box, there is usual corona style: We are being divided into small groups who are being let into the show with an interval of about ten minutes. Each one of us are given a headset and a facemask, before we wander into the theater hall in a row. There is something about the clinical corona atmosphere that kind of makes the bridge over to the performance fiction a bit longer for me, and I expect that also this time I will need longer time to get into things. But then, in the very moment I lean back into the the chair in the first “room”, I am sucked in.

Five plays on death consists of five windows into the lives of five different people. We observe them through glass, and the fact that they are physically divided from us thus becomes in itself an image of the distance from what is living, hence physically available and close, to what is dead and that we can not touch. Each room consists of fragments, like the memories of a person that is gone is only bits and pieces of everything they really were. Some of the figures we are meeting have already passed the borders of death, others are in different ways close to it.

Visual universe In the first room, sits an elderly man in a chair. He is looking out at us, but the gaze is shifted thoughtfully inwards. He is just sitting there, with his old, RU hands in his lap. On a small table there is a chinese pot and a tea cup. The back wall is covered by an old fashioned flower patterned wallpaper. Out of the wall, higher above, the upper body, massive head and antlers of a deer stretches itself towards us. As an abstraction of countless deers posthume destiny as cloak hangers, it becomes an image of death, kind of a messenger.

Encounters between human and technology Each of the rooms we are wandering by has its own particular beauty. Like the one of the gray haired man (Torbjørn Martin Davidsen), where he sits in front of a desk with a Mac, old food leftovers, and empty beer cans, and reads his own obituary in a microphone, with a small blue and white robot as sole company. “Torbjørn Martin Davidsen er død”, he starts seremonially, and lists his own characteristics. He is not merciful either, og concludes that as a human he has been “deeply shallow”. This is just one example of the humoristic lightness and playfulness that is running through the performance. Due to the images being both so original and technically and visually clever, they render enormously powerful. Like the way the little robot is brought to life og strokes his white, artificial robot arm over Davidsens arm to comfort him. Paradoxically, some of the strongest moments in the performance occurs in the encounters between the actors and advanced robot technology and animation. These situations also become images of human shortcomings and loneliness in the technological and thoroughly digitized reality we have created and surrounded ourselves with. All over, the performance contains a deep humanity, and absorbs the slow death and transformation of our natural world: “I am not that worried that the world will go under”, Davidsen says, and explains almost casually that all stories has an end. Thus it is not so strange to imagine that the one about mankind has an end, as well.

A life in art Kari Winge Onstads room has the shape of a glass display case. Inside of it sits her granddaughter, Aurora Winge, on a black divan with her late grandmothers shoes on her feet. The floor is covered with a soft, white rug. Next to the divan is an old dresser and a teak mirror. Her grandchild looks into the jewelry box with her grandmothers old jewelry, tries on her red faux fur coat, and all the time we hear Kari Onstads voice in the headphones. Some of Knausgårds most famous sentences are mixed with beautiful, exalted words about the theater diva Onstad. The text is located somewhere between homage and beautification. This wakes a lot of thoughts in me. With a whole life lived in art; has one in escaped life in a way? Or can it on the contrary be that one, for instance in the close and almost unusually near working relations that a long lasting theatre company includes, can come even closer to life in its essence?

I could have emphazised every moment in this performance. The two old friends Eva and Kari on the little, yellow kitchen. The naked older guy, sitting in lotus position in a 3D meadow, with a beekeeper hat on his head – munching honey from a jar and fabling about the twists and turns of life to the sound of humming insects and bird chirps. But no matter what I describe, it will be a reductive exercise, for my language can not embrace in exactly what way or why these exact images are so beautiful.

The last room is no exception, quite the contrary. An underlying love to the wonderful about the world and human beings is spreading. The catalog text promised near life-experiences, and it is a good term. At this point in the performance one might be at the nearest. An emotionally overwhelmed reviewer has no choice but to surrender: tears and snot are running behind lumpy 3D glasses and the uncomfortable face mask. Below me is another member of the audience, crying with her arms around herself, like in kind of a lonely corona hug. Thus, we might be extensions of the weird and beautiful characters we just encountered. When the lights are turned down in the end, can we in the audience for a moment see ourselves reflected in the glass in front of us, like a clever memento mori.

I have often thought that performing arts at its best creates densified moments, a kind of a life presence in higher potency. For a reviewer that sometimes fears the numbness of quantity fatigue, it’s good to feel how strongly I still can experience theatre when it really strikes me to the ground. Afterwards, I am thinking about how fantastic it is that art like this exists in the world and can move me this strongly in a few short, but very meaningful moments.