“Surely it doesn’t matter, someone will know”
As we take our seats in the dark cocoon-like space inside Toynbee Studios, we become aware of four women in similar dresses already seated. They simultaneously play Flora, the subject of Melanie Wilson’s performance poem Autobiographer, at different stages in her life which has slowly become ravaged by dementia. Layers of stories and memories , thoughts and feelings are built up as the voice of the piece glides between the performers, constantly reaching for something tangible in this disorientating chaos.
What emerges in this fractured world of memory are fragments, as if from a once-beautiful now-broken piece of pottery. On their own, their charm is obscure, elusive; as the pieces come together and the women speak in twos and threes, and then finally as we experience all six – for we eventually encounter six iterations of Flora’s persona – there’s a greater sense of what was, and what can never be again.
There’s still a sense of elusiveness that pervades though, and whilst Wilson wisely steers clear of sentimental weepy territory, the abstract nature of her work here means that the emotional engagement is sometimes a little muted. The focus on Flora as a person first and foremost, who also happens to be suffering from dementia, pulls the piece in a slightly unexpected direction, especially when questions are directly asked of ourselves.
This interactivity of the performance opens up interesting thoughts about our attitudes to dementia as a society. Every so often, a Flora would pose a question to a member of the audience, oft-times disarming them, and then spin off the responses, whether it was taciturn reluctance to get involved or a careful eagerness to please. This instinct to fill in the gaps in Flora’s memory in a positive way intrigued me – is it right to offer well-intentioned crumbs of comfort even if we don’t know the answers. Wilson doesn’t really explore that here but the question is left tantalisingly open.
Wilson’s own soundscape acts almost as an additional facet to Flora’s character, persuasively atmospheric and Peter Arnold’s design, along with Ben Pacey’s beautiful lighting – a canopy of flickering lightbulbs keeping uncertainty in the air, is extremely well-matched to the piece. There’s no doubting that Autobiographer is a stunning piece of work which takes its weighty subject matter and treats it with the most sensitive and gossamer-light of touches. What results may be too ephemeral for some tastes but worked well for me, especially in the haunting performances of Janet Henfrey and Penelope McGhie.