Although a few dance venues are opening up for short runs of live performance over the last few months, when I watch Lost Dog’s poignant In a Nutshell I still want to cry. Empty rows of red velvet seats, a brooding silence and bland lighting that refuses to dim in anticipation of any spectacle create this theatre starved of bodies.
The lone figure of Ben Duke occupies one of the seats, looking awkward, even defeated. His eyes roam anxiously around the theatre then back at the camera to which he is addressing, hesitatingly speaking to an invisible audience, trying to explain the experience of live theatre to a future generation who never experienced it, unsure whether anybody is even watching. At times he gestures frantically with his hands as if trying to conjure up the tactility that is so achingly absent from camera and screen mediated interactions. I feel his pain. At one point in desperation he asks whoever’s watching to go and get a person, a pet or plant so that they can feel the sensation of being close to another living organism.
Lost Dog’s short film, streamed for free by The Place Online was made at the beginning of lockdown and is a eulogy to live performance before the pandemic but also a rumination on life without human contact. Duke’s 16-minute monologue, punctuated by silences and occasional plaintive music is full of nostalgia for presence and presences, flavoured with his touching, idiosyncratic humour as he remembers notable personal experiences of being in a theatre and watching bodies on stage. Rather than describing sensational moments of technical expertise, Duke tries to convey the power of the three- dimensional relationship between performer and spectator which cannot be felt online.
In a short period of time, he describes what most people love about the full theatre experience from feelings of expectation or being emotionally affected by what we see on stage to the baser human comforts of buying a drink and sharing the intense, dark space with strangers. While he lists theatrical highlights – making indirect references to performances by Pina Bausch, Hamlet, “Argentinians descending from the roof” or Greek tragedy, what he’s really trying to get across is how live theatre allows us to forge all kinds of human connections: audience members with whom we accidentally rub knees against, charismatic performers with whom we could reach out and touch. I share his craving for real bodies that make theatre happen both on and off stage, even if they sit too close, cough too loudly or perform badly.
At one point Duke talks about what it was like to perform “up there”, but then in a self-deflecting manner segues into a story about what the other performers were thinking about or what thoughts the play had triggered in audience members. Here his language is beautifully nuanced and reflective but he brings us back to the present flatly pointing out to his unseen viewers that there’s no sense of value in watching a free film. What I love about In a Nutshell is that Duke avoids sentimentality – at one point questioning why we even bothered going to the theatre as it was such a hassle – yet stirs up in us deeply felt emotions about what we are missing right now.