Betroffenheit

Choreographed and directed by Crystal Pite; written by Jonathon Young
Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre
Sadler's Wells

Jonathon Young, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, David Raymond, Tiffany Tregarthen and Bryan Arias in Betroffenheit Credit: Wendy D Photography
Cindy Salgado, Bryan Arias, Jonathon Young, David Raymond, Tiffany Tregarthen and Jermaine Spivey in Betroffenheit Credit: Michael Slobodian
Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit Credit: Michael Slobodian
Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathan Young in Betroffenheit Credit: Michael Slobodian
David Raymond and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit Credit: Michael Slobodian

In different contexts, Betroffenheit can mean dismay, shock, concernment, importance, involvement, worry, and anxiety—well, that’s what I find in my dictionaries, and that’s what actor-playwright Jonathon Young explores in his text—the numbing shock and disbelief when trauma strikes. The poleaxed, scrambled brain trying and failing to take in the enormity of a life-shattering event, one that is every parent’s nightmare.

This is his personal bad dream, a descent into self-absorbed addiction, into breakdown. In 2009, his teenage daughter, his nephew and niece died in a fire and he could not save them. Even with the distance of years, it is mind-boggling that he can perform this, his public memorial to them, night after night. Does it heal the pain or keep the wound open? Is it penance or therapy?

It would feel like an intrusion on private pain if not for the fact that there are five people on stage with him, intruding on his pain, prodding, teasing, mocking, saving him. His doubles, his daemons and demons, his rebelling five senses? In an existentialist expressionist ‘Weimar’ cabaret, which is both macabre and funny, he and Crystal Pite let loose in a stunning co-creation.

Pite, a family friend, animates the storyboard of his unravelling mind. If you’ve seen her A Picture of You Falling, The Tempest Replica and Polaris, which won her an Olivier Award in 2015, you’ll know she favours a dark palette and that she likes to work with text, underscoring, highlighting it with an intense body language.

Jay Gower Taylor’s set is a grim, grey underground car park, where the cables snake up the wall and across the floor, where oddballs tiptoe, where lights flicker and speak. A man is found hunched in a corner, the corner of his derelict mind.

“Respond, emergency.” “Don’t respond.” “You’re past that.” “You’re the user.” “When did you quit?” “Past the point of collapse?” “The accident has happened.” They all speak in his voice, the rubber-limbed dancers lip-synching in echoing repeats. “The user gets used.”

Jermaine Spivey, supple down to his feet, is his main man, the alter ego he duels with, dances with, tussles with. With David Raymond he tap dances, with bendy Tiffany Tregarthen in white face and tiny clown hat he has a “meaningful connection”, Bryan Arias and Cindy Salgado are the distracting samba cabaret act—all a backup band of sorts. Better than nothing.

Metaphors and striking imagery… Tiffany dynamites him, but he returns running under a single flickering light bulb, disconnecting from reality, looking for that ‘safe room’, helpless, hopeless, too late, replaying his guilt. It “haunts you over the years.”

Looking for a drug-induced ‘epiphany’—what else but a variety show, bright lights, fluffy pink fans and spangles. “I’m back.” In MC shiny blue suit and black wig, he’s “ the host”: “I should never have left.”

What is so amazing is that Young’s performance—he dances well with unflagging stamina—fits seamlessly with those of the trained dancers. Pina Bausch’s dance theatre and Derevo physical theatre are the closest equivalent. Robert Wilson, too, and his work with Mikhail Baryshnikov, also springs to mind.

There’s sadness and humour (and taped laughter) in the tears of a clown, a Pierrot disappearing into a small box, a tiny puppet manipulated by others—“am I on anything?” “We have a situation.” A collapse, a jazzy defibrillation, “listen, don’t respond.” “We’re done here, let’s go.” But there’s a chink of light. “You have to talk yourself out of it.”

A billowing black cloth swirls on a barely visible stage, shapes surge, shadows multiply and ripple along the wall, his five lively senses kick in, and he sings, “I know I let you down.” A long first half, some seventy-five minutes; will the second be more of the same? It’s about fifty minutes, more dance than theatre, but text proves irresistible.

In grey vests and trousers, a more homogenous group dances low in Tom Visser’s smoky lighting to Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, Meg Roe’s apocalyptic tinnitus soundscape. Close contact work, a body as one, they slip, slide, triggering a chain of moves, tremble, tick like robotic clockwork, duplicate and split, specimens under overhead lights. Camera shutter clicks and lights out.

A scratchy record, white noise, an electronic thrashing storm, fighting for air, “You’re rescued, you recover.” “No, I’m not the victim.” “I don’t need help.” “The others are gone.” “You’re the disaster waiting to happen.” “You couldn’t reach them.” “I was sleeping.” Recriminations and despair—the solid walls melt and warp. They smother him.

Remembering, he thrashes as the others hold him in headlock and pieta, the past is being exorcised, but there’s no running from it. “You have to keep it open.”

Spivey’s solo, willing his limbs to move into leaps and spins, speaks of a reawakening. Young stumbles off. A light bulb burns in the gloom. Says it all.

Reviewer: Vera Liber