Are you there?

Are you there?

Amsterdam Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, directed by Oystein Johansen

By Jodean Sumner

Cutting the air with a knife. This is the kind of  tense environment that is attempted within Are you there? – directed by Oystein Johansen from the Amsterdam Hogeschool voor de Kunsten. If such a thing were actually possible, to cut the air and take a piece home with you-you would be leaving empty handed. Although the performance might fall short of some it’s intentions it exceeds them in others. It is a presentation that is simple in its practicality and aesthetic. However when we consider and interpret the work, we find it to be a deceptively thorough exploration. The ideas are much more complex than the compositional structure of the performance. The display of standing, waiting and hoping has much more to say than the patches of silence might suggest.

The two actors, Elsa May Avril and Guido Pollemans, explore the concept of fear. Fear of contact with someone outside of your own world. Or fear of no one being there at all. This contradiction is an interesting factor to consider in partnership with the dynamic of an emotional relationship. In silence they wander the space, shifting flecks of dust, or meandering along the row of audience. The clipped sound of their shoes interrupts the pervasive silence. In focusing our attention to the smallest of details by removing all other things, the director makes an attempts to clearly define this tense atmosphere. Like the characters in this show, we are also waiting, expecting something to happen.

They assert the same statements over and over again: “There is nobody here. There is only the house and the sea,” the male performer reports. The female performer replies: “Somebody is here. I sense that somebody will come.” These lines are open to interpretation. Using inflection differently each time they speak, they convey different subtexts- hope, fear, desperation – and at times hysteria. The realization that perhaps no one is coming starts to create its own fear. The female performer adamantly replies again and again: “Someone IS coming. I sense that somebody IS coming!” But this doubt soon shifts as time progresses. Rather than the fear that no one is coming, and the hope that they are, the performers are afraid of someone coming. The fear is that someone actually is there, outside. These two concerns merge, and consequently become indistinguishable.

Things become more frantic. Resorting to a childish defense system, the female acts irrationally: slowly, she drops to her knees, and bends backwards. Laying folded on the floor. Or, she climbs on the table. She attempts to take off her clothes. Allowing the worry to consume her – wailing and running – she acts as though some invisible presence has threatened her. All the while the male performer storms across the space, shouting that no one is there. In an ineffective attempt to control his fear, he strides about the space, he begins to awkwardly contort his arms and shoulders, leaning backwards. At the climactic point he takes a solid wooden hammer and smashes it repeatedly on the table. We realize that this performance is not a recreation of a horror movie, but actually an insight and investigation into isolation and comfort of the hypothetical couple.

As the action of the piece articulates fear it also begins discuss it theoretically. Though it speaks about fear of others, it also expresses desire and need for difference: to experience or be in contact with the outside. People outside of the group that you are part of. Despite these necessary social ambitions, we experience inexplicable fear when reaching the outside of that group. Are you there? speaks less of the visible and the invisible, but more about the social function of individuals, couples and larger groups. Those concerns are all the more poignant in this international festival context. The artists are highlighted as individuals who are reaching outside of the known and comfortable. The audience are reminded that through art one can extend a hand outside of their known boundaries or possibly firmly close the doors. They try to create tension, but actually there is no need to be frightened. We know – and I believe the characters know – that no one is there. Instead the performance generates an intrigue in the psyche human: the reaction of the mind in apparent isolation. Perhaps fear is in fact a defense, an excuse, a comfort.

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