Something or Nothing
Oval House Theatre
Had Guy Dartnell never been tempted by the flirtatious nature of Krishnamurti's writings, Something or Nothing may never have materialised. Thankfully it did, and Dartnell's show explores the very notion of the self and ego.
For once, Freud does not feature at all in such a discussion. Rather, Dartnell invites the audience to join him on a personal journey as he recounts past experiences in quasi-autobiographical mode. Back problems, drying on stage, the complicated nature of the Alexander technique, all feature in the 70 minute piece, as well as Dartnell's work as an improvisation teacher, his past theatre projects and an encounter with Krishnamurti himself.
These episodes from the past create a rich tapestry of Dartnell's life, woven together by a variety of theatrical techniques. Although he proclaims "I'm not a dancer", Dartnell's body hardly stops moving as each muscle, bone and ligament explores the space, connecting to the text.
Exploration is a key theme and throughout Something or Nothing Dartnell constantly questions whether such a thing as the self truly exists? Aided by an old-school roller board, some chalk, a projector and two spotlights he engages his audience in debate, provoking thought as a result of his own musings and experiences.
The use of the two spotlights - 'personal' and 'religion' - allows the audience to voyeuristically observe his inner thoughts. This technique results in much humour deriving from the fact that what Dartnell chooses to be private is in fact public in a theatrical setting.
Projection is used to great effect and there is something delicious about Dartnell's overt use of chalk. A compound consisting of dead matter, chalk brings life to bare surfaces through Dartnell's rough illustrations on the blackboard. Chalk also has the power to communicate knowledge and ideas through the written word, enlightening others whilst truly inhabiting creation as an artistic tool. But chalk can also signify destruction. At one point in the show the chalk outline around Dartnell's living body provides a haunting reminder of a crime scene.
Saving his most powerful use of calcium carbonate until last, Dartnell slowly creates a chalk circle under where the 'religion' spotlight usually shines. Connotations of Brecht's chalk circle abound and it is hard to ignore the ghosted presence of one of Brecht's most egotistical characters: Natella Abashvilli. She, like the father in Dartnell's Oogly Boogly anecdote, was more interested in herself than the innocent child.
In bare feet and chest, Dartnell slowly manoeuvres the chalk to reveal a sequence of symbols: a cross, a star, a dollar. Has capitalism killed religion? Is money more powerful than God? Is wealth the new worship?
Dartnell's final symbol suggests that, regardless of whether driven by the spiritual or financial, death is always the result. A life begins, a life ends. The cycle continues. But does a life constitute something, or nothing? Did we ever really exist? What does it mean to be alive?
Something or Nothing provokes its audience to question the very notion of existence. With four solo shows behind him, Dartnell definitely has something, and nothing is finer than an evening in his intriguing theatrical presence.
Playing until 26th February 2011 at Oval House Theatre, Vauxhall, then touring to Axis Arts Centre, Crewe (1st March), Exeter Phoenix (3rd May), Warwick Arts Centre (5th - 6th May) and The Place, London (16th June).
Reviewer: Simon Sladen