This is the stuff of which nightmares are made. A frightful storm from which sundry strangers take refuge to spend the night in an isolated place provides the essence of On The High Road; this latest work by Clod Ensemble, the innovative performance company jointly led by Suzy Willson and Paul Clark (Willson directs and Clark composes). Although there is no direct narrative connection, their concept is loosely based on the scenario of Anton Chekhov’s eponymous novel, set somewhere in Southern Russia, in which travellers sit out a vicious thunderstorm by sheltering in an overcrowded inn.
Clod has been going for 25 years although its performance projects appear to have been few and far between: I recall Under Glass where the artists were encased within glass and also a promenade event that took over the whole of Sadler’s Wells (An Anatomie in Four Quarters) but little else and, so, it came as no surprise to learn that On The High Road was ten years’ in the making.
Both of those earlier works were driven by extremes of spatial circumstance: from the limitations of performing within glass cases, to the freedom of being anywhere and everywhere within a large theatre. On The High Road returns the performers to a confined situation, sharing and negotiating space within Sarah Blenkinsop’s open elevation of an absurdly small house; a transparent building skeleton complete with minimal furniture and stairs. After an early bout of grumbling thunder to set the mood, we encountered seven people sheltering therein; each having claimed their particular space (under a table, wedged on a stair, perched in an alcove).
The whole scenography is monochromic – black costumes on white set – with the bored and listless seven wearing conical hats. The omnipresent sinister, thunderous backdrop aligned with the suggestion that outside the “shelter” lies a Heathcliffian moor of unending darkness, and the liberal use of dim light and shadow combine to give the work a Hitchcockian atmosphere, further fuelled by the occasional, unsettling imagery of violence and strangulation. The lighting designs by Hansjörg Schmidt enhanced the allusion of a surreal moving sculpture. A powerful sense permeated the work of both performers and place being caught in a liminal space, both environmentally and spiritually.
Eventually, three more travellers arrive at the shelter, distinguished by a different (flower pot) headdress, but still dressed in black. Their presence increases the premium on space, leading to more compressed interaction as the ten performers seek to improve upon or protect their vantage in a kaleidoscope of motion. In these wee small hours of the morning, life is part party and part quarrel. Three more visitors come to the fore at different times, bringing vocal text and song to the performance: firstly through the soprano voice of Melanie Pappenheim, her cult status in dance already assured as the crucified figure in DV8’s Strange Fish; then cult, camp, cabaret artist, George Heyworth (half of the satirical music act, Bourgeois & Maurice), similar in attitude to Joel Grey’s Cabaret compere, Emcee; and lastly, Irish folk singer, Thomas McCarthy, who arrives at the “shelter” towards the end of the performance; a papist pilgrim (complete with mitre and stave) who sings a doleful dirge surrounded by the assembled “refugees”. Each of these episodes provided a refreshing contrast to the stifling greyscale languor, but having jolted the ennui in a new direction, the sequences with Heyworth and McCarthy were of such a length as to require a similar rescue.
Willson has assembled a strong cast of dancers, alongside the three vocalists, and although the ensemble was clearly intended to be homogenous, similarly costumed and with little scope for elaborate movement, several performers were readily recognisable, including former National Dance Award nominee, Christopher Akrill, who was largely resident on “the ground floor”; Richard Alston Dance Company member, Ihsaan de Banya; and Makiko Aoyama, formerly in the cast of Lea Anderson’s Ladies & Gentleman.
The patterns of movement achieved within the multi-layered confines of the set were absorbing, particularly when all performers moved simultaneously into different positions; and the soundscape of howling nature interlaced with three very different solos of the human voice provided intriguing contrasts to set against the monochrome imagery. Although the show itself was not over-long, some elements within it over-stayed their welcome.
My limited experience of Clod Ensemble suggests that here is a company focused on achieving inventive dance theatre in unusual spaces. With such a strong pedigree in its limited repertoire, it is surprising that Clod ideas take so long to come to fruition; or, is it yet another sorry tale about innovative companies struggling to fund exciting projects?