Review – England – The Whitechapel Gallery

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I enjoy site specific art – dance, theater, installation, whatever – so England was a must-see for me. Site specific art not only takes advantage of the location to enhance the production – it can change the way you see a place, leaving traces of its magic behind. I’ve never seen a play done inside an art gallery (though I’ve seen many performances in art galleries, especially Phoenix’s Icehouse and its predecessor, Crash), so after reading a preview in a local free paper, I set up a time to see it.

Well … it’s two days later and I can’t really find much to say about it. Two actors (Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham) move around the main space of the Whitechapel Gallery, occasionally talking about the artist who’s showing, but mostly building a story in which they both represent a person who 1) has a boyfriend 2) collects art (sort of) and 3) lives in a jam factory in Southwark. They smile almost manically during the show like they’d both taken happy drugs, allowing them to develop a supremely profound ironic effect as they move beyond representing the life of a particular person and into representing the person as they deal with a fatal medical condition. It’s all done in the present tense, and it’s all a monologue (in the first half), and their grin as they talk about how it feels to be dying and how their boyfriend is reacting are just … creepy. It’s amazing how the facial expressions convince us that we should be expecting something else to be said, or, perhaps, that the person isn’t upset about what is happening to them. Really, the narrator seems to have little emotional response to events at all. It’s quite bizarre.

The second half (in which we are allowed to sit, though there are stools in the gallery if you’re not able to handle half an hour of legging it on cement) takes place in an auditorium, and the two actors now perform the parts of a person who has just had a heart transplant (possibly the narrator before, though it’s not necessary for them to be the same) and a translator who is speaking for the widow of the heart donor. It’s quite creepy and, I think, a fine bit of script that would actually have benifitted greatly from being performed in a different space – it all just felt too much like a conference room and not a bit like a hospital in a third world country. But it raised interesting questions about ethics and the world around us and, well, I liked it. Still, the piece as a whole didn’t really benefit from the site it was performed in, and the site itself did not gain from the performance as I would have liked it to – even though it did succeed in drawing visitors who might not otherwise have gone. Me, I’d rather see the whole thing done in an empty warehouse. As a whole, though, it wasn’t very moving and I’m chalking it up as “an experience.”

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, June 9th, 2009. England’s final performance is Tuesday, June 16th. For an alternate view, see the Guardian.)

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