Fevered Sleep are known for experimental productions. In 2010 at the Young Vic they gave us On Ageing, a remarkable piece in which children delivered verbatim the thoughts and feelings of elderly people interviewed about growing old. They return with Above Me the Wide Blue Sky, a 45-minute, one-woman play – also billed as an “installation” – about the changing natural world. As before, the script comprises the words of real people from all over the UK asked about their relationship to their environment.
A woman sits on a revolving stool addressing an audience that surrounds her on four sides. Covering each wall are screens showing film footage of a blue sky scattered with fast-moving clouds. The woman recites a list of things observed in rural and urban landscapes – some pleasant, others not. Olfactory details, for example, include “the smell of snow on wool”, “the sweet, steamy breath of a cow” and “the smell of cat shit in the sandpit” – the strangely pleasing rhyme in the latter is typical of this poetic piece. Gradually the list assumes a rhythmic shape. In a fluid middle passage, the woman describes the field outside her childhood home: its trees, flora, fauna, birdlife. Then a final inventory prefaces each item with “there used to be … ” – as in “there used to be birdsong; it’s much quieter now”. Here, the earlier images are repurposed to illustrate how human activity is damaging the natural world.
It’s an important argument, but sadly one made less eloquently in the performance than the substantial programme text, which includes quotations from Chekhov and John Berger as well as a professor of evolutionary psychology. The list format, devoid of narrative hooks, makes 45 minutes feel longer. The rejection of linear narrative in favour of free-form imagery is by no means new – but when it’s done with such baggy profusion it dilutes the power of each detail, and the overall effect is rather soporific. I wanted to hear more about the woman’s rural childhood – or perhaps that middle section and its full sentences just came as a relief.
This is a shame given Laura Cubitt’s assured performance and Ali Beale’s striking design – with its haunting film installation, subtle lighting and unsettling soundscape. I suspect this production will divide audiences: some will find it fertile and meditative, others frustrating.