It’s been a miserable day where there rain hasn’t stopped and I for one am rather relieved to have made it into the warm embrace of the theatre on time, if a little bedraggled. A man with a voice like a crisp spring morning asks us to please switch off our phones and electronic devices before we are informed that there will be several intervals in which we will need to clear the auditorium. The instructions soothe me; we can settle in.
The lights fade and we are plunged into near total darkness. I look about me and all I can register is a faint slither of light coming from the gap under the door we came in through. But I can’t see any of me, any of anyone. I can’t even see in front of me. My ears prick up – I can hear something on stage. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. A walking pulse, a stride no less [Mantero’s stride]. It’s getting louder [she’s coming towards us]. The footsteps cease [she’s stopped]. We all squint and strain our eyes to try to make her out – where is she?
Our blindness is strange, almost titillating. I realise how much I can hear: the squeaking of wet jeans in leather seats, a cough to my left perhaps four rows back, someone behind me shifting in their seat, my own lips parting. I feel liberated, liberated from sight’s primacy and dominance. The longer the suspension of sight lasts, the stronger my perception without it grows – perception of the physical space between me and the people around me, our collective and mounting expectation, and my own feeling of glee at the weirdness (specialness) of noticing such things in these conditions.
Time elapses, quite how much I am not sure. Vera’s holding us in her palm; money’s going up in the bank. Out of the darkness, the lightness of an oval shape becomes distinguishable. It must be her face, I think. But I do not trust my eyes and she’s a blur. This is optical gold dust. Clunk. She shifts. Whatever those shoes are, the sound they make is powerful and percussive and slices through the atmosphere.
Vocal sounds start to emanate from her, almost humanising her. An otherworldly quality remains. Her voice seems tiny but full, as though she is only using about ten per cent of what she’s got. A hopeful-hopeless cyclical pattern of saying a word and trying to explain that word by defining it with a synonym emerges: ‘A non-possibility… a bad vision… a fall…. an absence…’. Mantero exposes the use of language and its failings and ultimately highlights the void that understanding can drop off into. As she goes on with this cycle of word substitutions a movement vocabulary is developed that aligns signs with words, as if to compensate for the inadequacy of language itself. In the fight for communication, we see the composure of her character occasionally waver. The feet clatter, the arms tremor, the pitch and volume of her voice rise and dive. All of these things happen on a micro-scale, so tuned up and refined is her delivery.
During this interplay of movement and voice the light (that appears to come from one source above and downstage of her) is constantly, ever so slowly, fading up – first illuminating her head, then her arms, torso and eventually her legs, to reveal, in succession, glittering green eyelids, grey-green body paint from the neck down and wooden hooves for feet. The combination of her mythical, goat-like appearance and the simple, mesmerising lighting create a visually enthralling piece. It brought to mind the idea of performer as vessel.
Mantero possesses an understated, spiritual sort of conviction that is utterly compelling to witness. one mysterious Thing, said e.e cummings is an exceptional performance because Mantero harnesses the command and finesse she has over the various tools of a total performer with devastatingly nuanced restraint.
The improvised solo Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards is a different kettle of fish altogether. Mantero takes the space with vivacity and humour, letting go of control and ushering in the impulsive and the whimsical. Different personas pop up from the childish to the self-mocking. Whilst it was enjoyable to see this lively, unbridled side of Mantero, the unfulfilled potential of the set design – four wax shoes (that did not melt) dangling from the ceiling over lit lanterns – was annoying. This, in conjunction with the seemingly random musical choice (an old jazz number stopping and starting), made for less delightful viewing. Finally Olympia did not seem to go much further than a playful poke at the historical objectification of the female nude. It had some charm and I respect the sketch-like nature it has retained from its conception. However, I can’t deny that it did cross my mind that more development (rather than executions) might have been a better route to take.
Nevertheless, I was glad to see all three pieces in close proximity. The difference between the circumstances and contexts in which they were made was revealing. The only thing I am left pondering is whether this can really all still be present for her, as she claimed in the post-performance Q&A. She has been performing these solos since the nineties. I know there is a good argument for renewal after and in spite of success. I would probably make it if it were it not for the brilliance of that first piece.
‘one mysterious Thing, said e.e cummings’ (1996), ‘Perhaps she could dance first and think afterwards’ (1991), and ‘Olympia’ (1999) by Vera Mantero, 29 September 2010, Purchell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London