**** (4 stars)
The Other Way Works have established a name for themselves with a series of productions whose format can only be described, somewhat unsatisfactorily, as “performances”. The company prides itself upon creating unconventional live events — part theatre, part installation, part exhibition — in unconventional spaces. Mayfly toured festivals with a light show cast upon the stretched canvas of a tent, and I Am Waiting For The Opportunity To Save Someone’s Life transformed an empty unit in Birmingham’s Mailbox development into a brace of suites modelled around variations on the subject of waiting. Their new production, Treasured, does not explore radically new ground, either within the company’s thematic territory or within the wider parameters of their artistic style — but in its own terms, the piece transcends its essentially simplistic nature to offer patrons a deeply personal and rather moving experience, without ever revealing how or why it has done so.
Treasured has been commissioned by mac as part of the Encounters season, and see patrons ascend at staggered intervals to the Foyle Gallery which has been fitted out in an amalgam of a Dickensian curiosity shop and an elderly relative’s sitting-room. Having been encouraged to look around the bric-a-brac and objets d’art, an attendant is on hand to serve tea in china cups, complete with lump sugar and viennese whirls. All aspects of design, from the discreet footlights to the soundtrack of operetta and saxophone jazz, create a genuinely relaxing, enveloping atmosphere, which is only disrupted by the noise of patrons chatting and bustling around the Box Office unfortunately situated below.
An envelope in a jewellery box prompts each patron to select their favourite from three mirrors, positioned amongst the antiques, after which a dresser leads them into a second antechamber where they become a participant in a ritual conceived around a piece of body jewellery matched to the décor and dressing of the chosen mirror. In a vestibule crammed with leaves, the patron is adorned with Louise Bryan’s ivy-tendrilled arm sculpture, before being suffused with light to create a silhouette which makes it appear that the plant is sprouting from within the patron themselves. Mikaela Lyons’ ruff made of maps folded into sharp concertinas initiates a circular odyssey on a makeshift sedan chair past suspended boxes of compact mirrors and decoupage sea-monsters. John Moore’s exquisite head-dress, decorated with iridescent beetle wings, forms the centrepiece of a wordless ceremony akin to an Egyptian coronation, with the patron as the revered Pharaoh.
Text is subordinated in favour of alternative sensory languages. Gentle hands guide participants around the chamber by touch, and sound in particular is used to give each ritual a suitably mythic dimension. It is in this aspect of the proceedings that the real purpose of the curiosity shop room suddenly reveals itself; it is necessary for a communicant to disengage themselves from everything outside, to prepare themselves for the self-contained, attention-focusing nature of the ritual process. If the participant were to come straight into the ritual chamber from the busy, noisy world beyond, they would simply not be responsive to the minute sensations that the experience creates and upon which its success depends — which was precisely the effect produced at earlier work-in-progress showings at Pilot.
In form and, especially, in content, Treasured has a simplicity which is somehow at odds with the human resources pumped into it; it is difficult in some ways to reconcile why two directors and six creative collaborators (three jewellery designers notwithstanding) were required to create a piece which is reliant on such straightforward, uncomplicated and deintellectualised principles. Certainly, the purpose and the meaning of the experience being undergone always remains just beyond the patron’s grasp, and yet, curiously, in this instance, that matters less than it might under more formal circumstances.
As with previous pieces, the production finish is a little rough around the edges, with carpets lifting around the sides of the room, and copious amounts of gaffer tape drawing the eye and compromising the integrity of the design concepts — but in a space from which all external sights and sounds can be eradicated, and with a more rigorous eye for the fine detail of construction, Treasured truly could be the star centrepiece of The Other Way Works’ collection.
Philip Holyman Regular Theatre Critic for METRO WM