Review: Guy Dartnell in Something or Nothing at The Place

Performance: 16 June 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Friday 17 June 2011

Guy Dartnell 'Something or Nothing'
Photo: Sinead Rushe

There’s a point about halfway through Something or Nothing where performer-choreographer Guy Dartnell verbally acknowledges the essential futility of the project at hand. “You can’t make a show about having no ego,” he says, “It’s so egotistical…especially a solo show!” It’s a funny and revealing moment that at once exposes the tension between self and selflessness that is the work’s core, and lays bare the performer’s anxiety about making something authentic. The most authentic thing to do, he realises, would be to not make a show at all. But then nobody would know about it.

Loosely based on episodes from Dartnell’s own life – drying up while acting on stage, dealing with chronic back pain and a personal epiphany catalysed by philosopher J. KrishnamurthiSomething or Nothing takes a broad line of enquiry regarding the self, spirituality and being. Through personal anecdotes, textual readings, video and chalk drawing, Dartnell examines the problematic possibility of selflessness in the realm of human consciousness.

The work, largely speech-based, is intimate and confessional. A physiotherapist leads Dartnell to physically “let go” of his body, and with that release comes an outpouring of anger and grief. Douglas Harding’s “pointing experiment”, enacted live with a video camera, encourages Dartnell to think of himself an observer at the centre of the universe, rather than the surface being that others perceive. Meditation, he says, blurs the boundaries between the edge of the body and the surrounding space; religion is a spotlight upstage, which Dartnell declines to enter because he “doesn’t really understand it”. From this patchwork of vignettes emerges a thoughtful, gently comic, reflection on the nature of self and the idea of non-attachment, of letting go of the self entirely.

It’s impossible, of course – if not to achieve, then to represent authentically in performance. Dartnell acknowledges that what he should of course be doing is improvising the show entirely, not knowing what he’s going to do until the moment he does it. But that’s not what this show is – Something or Nothing is rather an intelligently-constructed, devised piece of theatre, developed over four years. The number of collaborators thanked in the programme alone demonstrates what a careful labour the show has been to make – rather than letting go of thought and submitting to the moment, Dartnell has clearly been thinking and working very hard indeed.

Ego is as vital a part of the audience’s response as it is a part of the performance. Dartnell’s tales of the self – snippets of a life in performance, of self-help, of physical therapy – demand empathy; the performer himself is a frank and engaging raconteur and it’s hard not to start identifying with elements of his personal history. Some will resonate with audience members more than others (I was personally right on board with his back pain woes); this unaffected, candid mode of performance reveals both the experiencing, narrating self of the performer and the receiving, empathising self of the audience.

That the self cannot be removed from this work is emphatically not a problem – the experiment is rather fascinating to behold, and there are moments of genuine theatrical magic in the mix. A projected image of a meditating Dartnell appears, eerily, on a chalkboard; the live version chalks vigorously around the body to demonstrate the feeling of blurring into the universe. It’s a simple piece of staging, but works very effectively to illustrate the sensation Dartnell describes and to connect it visually with the audience.

After an hour of open-ended, open-minded discussion, illustration and enactment of this complex theme, the ending of the piece struck me as rather anticlimactic. A pile of chalk-dust replaces the spotlight upstage where “religion” belongs; with short, shuffling steps Dartnell traces out the symbols of some (but not all) of the world’s major religions. To have such a complex, nuanced and – by Dartnell’s own earlier admission – ineffable subject reduced to a series of emblems, brand logos traced on the stage floor, seemed to undermine much of the previous examination.

Dartnell ends by helpfully hoovering up the remaining chalk, saving the stagehands a job but ultimately leaving a blank where we might expect a conclusion. Perhaps this was part of the point – by leaving us with an empty stage, the focus ends firmly on the nothing of the title rather than the something – but it left me feeling unsatisfied after a rich opening 70 minutes. Despite this uneasy finish, and its humble, equivocal title, Something or Nothing is definitely a work of substance. We can be glad Dartnell decided to make it, ego and all.

Part of Springloaded 2011 at The Place

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