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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Water, Great Connector

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

Photo: Simon Kane
Theater is found not only in words and action but also in space—in the way humans move through it and occupy it, the way our physical environment brings us together and keeps us apart. As our contemporary lives have become more isolated and modular—awash in cheap, disposable conveniences and screens everywhere, delivering bits of information, connecting us less to each other than to the means of communication themselves—theater artists attuned to these changes have plenty of fresh material.

Britain’s Filter Theatre seems particularly alert to the way we live now. In shows like Faster and Silence, as well as in freewheeling adaptations of classics, the company has employed a pared-down, seam-showing aesthetic. As co-artistic director Ferdy Roberts describes it, “The idea is that the rehearsal room ends up onstage.”

That’s certainly true of the look and feel of Filter’s intimate but wide-ranging work Water, which debuted at London’s Lyric Hammersmith in 2007, was revived in 2011 at the Tricycle Theatre, and comes to the BAM Harvey from November 13 to 17. A transatlantic mystery with climate change as a thematic backdrop, Water has characters staring into laptops, moving hurriedly through desolate airports, speaking through disembodied microphones, or, if they’re feeling particularly forward, addressing us directly with a slide presentation on the molecular structure of H2O. The world around may be warming, but the world of Water feels distinctly chilly.

“This piece’s preoccupation is the fluidity and loneliness of our modern lives,” says director David Farr, an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who worked with Filter to devise the piece. “And the show’s strangely minimal, stripped quality accentuates this melancholic solitude. We intended this. In other shows the same aesthetic can feel really rather gregarious, almost wild, but here it serves a different function. It’s a sad show, no question. But we throw in other countervailing moods too. There’s humor, mischief, and even a little anarchy. And suspense. I love suspense.”

Photo: Simon Kane
Though it addresses global concerns, Water—as with all the troupe’s work—was born from more personal sources. In a joint email, co-artistic directors Roberts and Ollie Dimsdale trace the germ of the idea to “a simple exchange...about vivid personal childhood memories connected to the power of water,” among themselves and their co-artistic director, Tim Phillips. It was Phillips, in particular, whose recollections provided one of the show’s key inspirations.

“Tim remembered being taken out by his dad on a boat when he was a boy, lying on the floor of the boat while his dad told him about the stars and constellations in the night sky,” said Dimsdale and Roberts.

This filial bonding over the natural world bloomed into the show’s central fictional relationship between a pioneering British marine biologist, Peter Johnson, and his estranged son Graham. Peter’s clarion warnings about the dangers of climate change reverberate through the play on many levels. One character, Claudia, is a well-meaning political aide for the British government who hopes to broker a deal on climate change at an international conference, while her sometime lover Phil is a deep-sea cave diver intent on breaking the world’s depth record. If the larger concept of legacy, of the sort of world we’ll leave to our children, ripples naturally out of the Peter and Graham story, it is in Phil’s daredevil stunts that Water “explores the human desire to push further and further, sometimes overreaching ourselves,” as Dimsdale and Roberts put it—another link to the global-warming theme.

Lest Water sound like a heavy environmentalist treatise, Roberts and Dimsdale were quick to note, “From very early on in the devising process, we were keen not to be overly didactic or polemical in the piece. We certainly didn’t want to preach. It was always our intention to make the issues resonate deeply on a personal scale. The anxieties and dangers for the characters are far more dramatic than the raw science behind global warming. Even the impassioned scientific lecture delivered by Peter Johnson in the early 80s of the play is loaded with profound personal resonance for him.”

For Farr, Water’s personal stories of isolation and disconnection led quite naturally to its being “a political narrative about connection, about the threat of climate change and the need to connect to understand and address it. This needed to be delicate; we are not scientists, nor do we claim to be. But we went there and we are proud we did.”

Rob Weinert-Kendt is senior editor at
American Theatre magazine, and writes regularly for The New York Times and Time Out New York.

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