United Kingdom Pact with Pointlessness: Wendy Houstoun, The Place, London, 7.10.2014 (J.O’D)
Choreographer, Writer and Performer: Wendy Houstoun
Lighting Design: Chris Copland
Wendy Houstoun wrong-foots the audience from the start. Instead of speaking into the microphone that is waiting on its stand when she first appears from the wings (as she leads us to expect), she darts away from it to run in wide circles around the stage before disappearing again. Despite the grey, bobbed hair and the embonpoint, she runs with the control and force of the DV8 Physical Theatre dancer she was in the 1980s.
‘It’s just stuff,’ she says about this solo performance from 2013 when, standing on a chair instead of sitting on it, she does begin to speak. Her English self-effacement is so much dramatic technique. The words and movement of the piece are carefully planned (as she herself proves later on). Working with conventions that probably stretch back to British music halls of the nineteenth century, Houstoun mixes the serious and the absurd. The climax to Pact with Pointlessness may be contrived (the piece seems to go flat in its middle section), but at times it makes the audience laugh as nineteenth-century music hall audiences must have laughed. The ending is either funny or bleak, or both.
The words, at the beginning, are a kind of scripted word association game to a background of jaunty music. ‘Mind over matter’ becomes ‘You don’t mind; I don’t matter’. ‘Nietzsche’ transmutes to ‘Nature’ then ‘Nurture’, ‘Kierkegaard’ to ‘Gare du Nord’. The sound of a recorded whistle interrupts both the performer and the music; an enlarged computer screen at the back of the stage competes for our attention. Houstoun comes to resemble a bewildered ‘digital immigrant’, cowering at one side of the stage in a search for coherence. The piece is a gentle rage against the dominance of the technological, and also perhaps against death.
‘What is dance?’ she then asks. ‘Can movement communicate thought?’ Her voice switches to a recorded voiceover as she adopts dance-like poses. (‘I’m thinking about the building work outside my flat, about my friend who’s dying in the hospice.’) ‘Do I count?’ Her head and upper body encased in a narrow cardboard box, Houstoun demonstrates the different ways that she, a light-footed dancer still, can count (‘one, two’; ‘and a one, and a two’). Then she dances ‘My dance of nothing’.
It is at this point that Pact to Pointlessness falters. After the dance and its flawed climax, Houstoun goes through the opening movements of the piece again. She repeats the apparently improvised words (as if to show that nothing was improvised). Then she mouths them so that the accompanying gestures become meaningless. If the audience draws back from this theatrical metalanguage, it is pulled into the piece again by the poem that follows. ‘Time’s gone badly wrong,’ the seated Houstoun says as the computer screen cursor googles spa holiday breaks and a website called ‘Secret Escapes’. For the final (music hall) joke, she is standing inside the cardboard box. When she shuffles off, you feel it is ‘this mortal coil’ that Houstoun is leaving as much as the stage.