Bear with me, as this might make very little to no sense at all.
In the beginning of Bridge over Mud, the great mechanical mechanism that is both the evening’s skeleton and its heartbeat is largely shrouded in shadow. The house lights, too, are low. Then, without any overt markers or ceremony, a projector stutters to life and Verdensteatret’s equally evocative and inscrutable audiovisual symphony begins.
Calling it an “audiovisual symphony,” a descriptor straight from the program notes, is only the beginning; it is not the only appropriate lens through which to understand (or, barring understanding, at least engage with) the piece. The idea of there even being a single appropriate lens is anathema to the openness with which it’s constructed. All the same, thinking of it as a symphony makes a welcome amount of sense, in the way that what’s happening in projected visuals and mechanized shadow puppetry is responding to what’s happening physically and aurally, and then how their interactions create a new, continuous and combined element for individual audience members to construct meaning/feelings from, much like the interplay of melody and harmony in a string quartet.
Onstage is a mechanical universe, which both enables and is in and of itself the performance: the floor is mostly model train tracks in a vast, spidery network, in front of two staggered projection screens. There are humans in this landscape, too, mostly at its edges, though they come forward to play musical instruments, manipulate the technology onstage, and sometimes enter the shadow scenes with their bodies like giant puppets.
(Speaking of which: talking about the onstage environment as a “set” or even a “design” feels inadequate, and though I’m tempted to call its components “characters,” that implies that there is even a “story” for them to belong to. But they do have relationships, as much as a valve has a relationship to the bell of a tuba, or the piston of a train wheel has a relationship to a railroad tie. Anyway.)
It is, if you haven’t already noticed, exceedingly difficult to talk about with any kind of coherence, or without having to create an entirely new vocabulary. Suffice it to say: what’s going on is technologically stunning, breathtakingly innovative, and formally audacious.
Like a lot of formally innovative work (or symphonies of any kind, for that matter), not all of its sections are equally compelling. But the sections that did resonate with me are still looping in my head, open visual metaphors that I find myself diving deep inside of again and again, days after the performance. The sound of a street, stuck like a skipping record on a megaphone yell as a writhing white mass crawls across the screen. An almost-face made of distorted light like little amoebas under the microscope, attempting expressions. Little plastic periscopes rising from the tracks to scan the sky and transmit their tinny messages into nothingness.
There is very little in this piece that tells you what its creators were thinking when they made it, and even less that tells you what you might want to think about that. For me, as the trains circled around to take their final approach and as essential components of the machine were finally revealed, I was left thinking about how the things that have brought us wonder have also brought us death. But I couldn’t tell you what was running through the minds of the people on either side of me. Clear as mud, maybe, but maybe that is in and of itself enough.
photo from Verdensteatret