By Christopher Spring
Performance artwork is an intriguing little genre. Generally about 40 minutes to an hour long, it is a fascinating world where if a performance doesn’t fit in a gallery, a theatre, or doesn’t obey conventional storytelling narratives will simply be filed under Performance Art almost as an “other” category. Most of the time this means that it gets a very bad reputation for attracting some truly spectacularly peculiar pieces and is often mocked as such.
Tamara Saulwick’s “Endings” is at odds with this perception and is a great example of what Performance Art can be. By breaking away from conventional dialogues between those onstage and instead utilising interview recordings, lighting, physical performance and music “Endings” explores the process of death in a way that can only performance art can do.
The basic narrative is simple taking us through interviews and testimonies, conducted and lead by Saulwick herself, with her deceased Father, friends and family as they all talk about the on unifying certainty in life: Death.
The audience is guided through a journey of death from just before it happens, as the person becomes weaker, the moment it actually happens, immediately afterwards, the rage and coming to terms with death, the funeral and the reflection after the process is over as you look back. We are subjected to detailed accounts and stories throughout, supported ably by the physical presence of the actors controlling the recordings with turntables onstage, overlaying, interlocking, reflecting, singing over and mimicking the recordings as and when the moments dictate it.
Saulwick’s use of the recordings and the way in which she played them back showed repeated and mirroring emotions and feelings of rage, fear, sadness and happiness in equal measures. The point at which the recordings speak of the moment that someone dies was particularly powerful for me. The use of the word “surreal” is not one that would academically come to mind (having not seen someone die in the flesh) but is repeated by 3 different people.
In fact this piece as a whole is a stunning reflection on the fragility of life and the inevitable, devastating and sometimes the beautifully serene nature of death. The repeated messages of peace and relief reported by the various different voices gives an alternative viewing of death. In popular culture death is unequivocally presented as bad but in this piece, dying peacefully is seen as something to be unafraid of.
With the staging presented as it was with the actors controlling the lighting and the sound, swinging the lights, moving them, lifting them up and down as they need or don’t need them it presented a very “hands on” piece and one that really allowed the actors to dictate their space. A rare and inventive treat. Though graceful and effective most of the time, in some cases actually at points proved a little distracting to me. There were only a few moments where I really thought the lighting to be truly exceptional or particularly effective. One such moment is the psychic scene where the combination of repeated movements, speech and lighting representing the released rage caused by death in the living was stunning. The other was actually the moments of complete stillness with the recordings playing and the swinging lights slowly over the turntables.
Herein lies my main problem with the piece and the reason why it isn't 5 stars: some of the recording and effects though very clever, in some cases get lost because of the amount of things going on. It also begs the question of whether it necessary for it to be a physical stage performance? Personally I found the recordings and the sounds unbelievably moving and actually found some of the visuals, though stimulating and interesting, sometimes an unwelcome distraction. I feel another medium may be more effective to pass on the same message. For me personally, I closed my eyes for long periods to be able to concentrate on the recordings and found them stunning in their audible, raw emotion and stunning honesty.
Having said that it’s a piece well worth seeing and for such a huge subject it’s handled with real sensitivity by Tamara Saulwick and one that deserves to be commended and viewed as such.