Online, presented by the Barbican, London
June 2, 2021
Rhiannon Faith’s Drowntown is set in a dystopian world, ostensibly on the edge of a marine lido. Godot-like we are apparently waiting for a lifeguard to arrive. Dom, head twitching in a perpetual tick, shovels black ‘sand’, pointlessly, like a revival of a YTS scheme. A sub-contractor for maintenance, he attempts to prevent people from entering the pool.
The rest of the cast a mixed bunch. There’s a girl, tattooed with bleached hair, wearing a pink mackintosh, another in combat trousers who spies on everyone with a tiny pair of field glasses; a pallid man who tries to introduce himself to everyone (“Hello, I’m Donald”), and another wearing snorkel and flippers. A vague, electronic noise wafts in the distance. Everyone clutches plastic bags full of black liquid, like toxic colostomy pouches.
A telephone by the lifebelt rings periodically to telegraph a monologue about the impossibility of filling in a form. We’ve all been there. Equally periodically, everyone writes in the soot-like ‘sand. A voice over instructs people what to say when asked. By whom and about what is left to conjecture.
Faith invites the viewer to understand everyone’s backstory as they enact choreographed and spoken monologues. The swimmer has no mother, Donald is estranged from his daughter, Dom continually states the obvious that it isn’t very safe here (he is, of course, burying the bodies of drowned migrants). “Where is everyone?” screeches the girl, now divested of her coat as she writhes in the toxic pool, synthesisers wailing in the background. “It’s too late” shrieks the combat-trousered girl, the synthesisers now accompanied by a monotonous piano, oozing pathos.
Dom delivers a diatribe: “Over there is a lake of my mother’s tears,” in spades, peppered with obscenities perhaps in an attempt to give it an authenticity that even his good performance cannot pull off.
The performers end by drinking from their black water bags – are they committing suicide? The girl on the telephone eventually fills in her form.
Drowntown is a heart-on-sleeve harangue. The problem is that, far from eliciting empathy or even sympathy, it merely alienates. Cliché after cliché without choreographic interest, it goes on for far too long without development and contains nothing to illuminate.
Donald Hutera and Dominic Coffey give the only two performances that portray credible, three-dimensional people. What a pity that they are not provided with a work that justifies it.
Drowntown contains an inherent flaw in that, to buy into its premise that the world is disintegrating about one’s ears, one is unlikely to be in the position of spending one’s time watching a dance piece about it. The characters are too two-dimensional to evoke any real sense of pity for people who may really feel like this (the obvious parallel that we are invited to make is with migrants crossing seas in unsound vessels). Like all dystopian fantasies, there would be no point in presenting them if the author truly believed that it really is “too late”, but then again, none have ever spurred anyone on to effective action, rather they act to reassure us that things actually aren’t that bad after all, merely a slight thrill to be sacred by for a while before carrying on as usual.
“I see you with soft eyes, not hard eyes,” says mackintosh girl again and again. My eyes were dulled with ennui and then averted.