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Review: Project Arts’ “Mother of Pearl” is more theory than theatre

The avant-garde dance production is more theory than theatre

By Rory O’Sullivan


EMILY AOIBHEANN’S ‘Mother of Pearl’ is the second in a two-part production and follows ‘Sorry Gold’, which played at this year’s Dublin Fringe Festival. There are three dancers and three musicians in the cast: respectively, two women and a man, and two men and a woman. Aoibheann herself is one of the musicians, joined by guitarists Ciarán Byrne and Ronan Jackson. Its cinder-block walls make the stage feel like a warehouse; and the set, whose design team included the visual artist Liing Heaney, is dingy and dystopian like the cities of ‘Blade Runner’. The Project Arts Centre contributes to this, now firmly in the run-down-cinema rather than deconsecrated-church class of theatrical venue.

The stage is more like the interior of an unconscious mind than a physical place, which as a setting works well for this gleefully abstract performance. The playbill tells us that “Pan, God of the Wild, travels to the Ocean to dance with a pearl – a freakish hyper object from a post-natural age”, but the show is not really interested in its story. ‘Mother of Pearl’ instead offers a game of moods and concepts: the ugly and the beautiful, the industrial and the ecological, the trapped and the transcendent. At the curtain’s rise we see Cathi Sell dancing in a sequined leotard andcradling a stone; to which, while working through contortions, her approach is in turn affectionate and dismissive. At times she seems about to throw it across the stage. Rainy crackling sounds play out as she moves, like water falling on stones.

Then nearly fifteen minutes are given over to a tedious unveiling of the performers and objects onstage. They all start hidden under curtains. Taking advantage of this long distraction, Sell whirls away, drops the stone, changes clothes, and comes back. The musicians emerge and play an electric guitar, electric bass, and accordion. The other two dancers, Becky Neal and Michael Gillick, are revealed tangled among the objects. The objects are: a cluster of foot-sized platforms caged in wiry metal, two chairs and a kettle whose purpose I could not discern, some pyramidal scaffolding halfway between a set of monkey bars and a gallows, and the show’s eponymous pearl, appropriately white and smooth.

But the pearl does not really come into it until the end of the show’s middle third, which is its best and contains some genuinely resonant theatre. With the guitars and accordion playing tone-music composed by Aoibheann herself, the contrasting ideas onstage finally take form and speak to one another. Sell and Neal dance almost as one body and coax Gillick, who is in theory the God Pan, down from the high scaffolding. Pan swings on the bars and wraps himself around them, beauty and terror embodied; we turn to see Sell and Neal entwined together on the clustered platforms; Pan runs everywhere around the stage in a Dionysiac frenzy; after some soul-searching, he joins the other dancers and they pull down the high scaffolding.

Throughout all of this the pearl stands inert in the middle of the stage, an embodiment of aesthetic transcendence and perfection. It was the sphere, after all, that the Pan-worshipping Greeks considered the perfect shape, continuous and limitless in every direction. Parmenides and Plato both said it was the shape of the universe. When Pan is at last allowed access to the pearl it is only as part of a single consciousness merged with the other two dancers’. They take turns jumping around on top of it as the others hold it still.

With these gears all rotating, the show is able to get some mileage out of its images and motifs. In an interview with the Irish Times Aoibheann cites the philosopher Tim Morton, who has argued against separating the concepts of nature and civilisation, contending that they are inextricably one. This argument grounds the show as the metal scaffolding, the pearl, Pan and the two dancers all flow in and out of one another like waves. In this ‘Mother of Pearl’ grazes the best of abstract theatre as it has existed since Beckett: a mode of reasoning without a conclusion, a reasoning of images and emotions rather than of mind.

It should have stopped there. Instead the show ends with the theatrical equivalent of pumping diesel into a petrol engine. The dancers, and then the musicians too, all break off and run around the stage yelling, screaming and thrashing generally. Chairs are upturned; the curtains come back and are thrown around. Then it is on this chaos that the big black curtain closes to end the show. A woman behind the curtain screams sharply three times, enough to thoroughly discomfortthe whole audience, and the cue is given for everyone to applaud.

The ending is rash and pointless and deadens the effect of what comes before. Like the soporific reveal of cast and set at the beginning, it is a gesture towards a fashionable kind of abstract theatre that aims to bully and disturb audiences. It is easy to shock an audience, but hard to shock an audience while doing good theatre. The beginning and end are certainly unsettling, but only that. Neither manages to negotiate a place in a performance whose successes are always in spite of them.

Before the show’s run Aoibheann wrote a pretty exorbitant piece for which is mostly about the meaning of the pearl. An oyster will create a pearl in response to some kind of irritant in its mouth: proverbially a grain of sand, in truth normally a parasite. It surrounds the irritant with a smooth coating that protects the oyster, and over time the coating becomes a pearl.

For Aoibheann, the pearl basically stands for art itself: “I”, she writes, “am the irritant”. Later she asks the following, which I quote for you to puzzle over: “The extraction of the pearl kills the oyster. Considering nature, is product still more valued than ecology? Can we say the same about art?”. If the point of Mother of Pearl is to produce something great but commit murder in its extraction, then the show succeeds.