Revisiting a production for a second viewing is always a slightly odd experience. The performance is strangely haunted, inevitably occupied by the lingering ghosts of that previous encounter. Each movement appears like an echo of its last enactment and each moment is stained with a dreamlike residue of familiarity. The performance is at once the same and different.
This metaphor of haunting is particularly apt for Clout Theatre’s new show, in which the dead do not pester the living so much as the living revisit the dead. The three figures who populate the piece are stranded in a sort of purgatorial state, stuck in a relentless cycle of living and dying; kicking the bucket in ever more ingenious and gruesome ways, in between which they are desperate to achieve the semblance of life. Elements of the lives they have left doggedly return to them – unfinished business that refuses to release its hold.
I first saw The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity on the Edinburgh Fringe this August, in the suitably atmospheric surroundings of Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. Watching the piece then, although able to admire the stunning images crafted by Clout Theatre, I struggled to fully engage with it. That might, admittedly, have had as much to do with the context of Edinburgh as with the show itself. Let’s not pretend that seeing four or five shows a day leaves a critic in the freshest state of mind when approaching new work.
Whatever the reasons, I took a lot more from The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity on this second viewing. Particularly with heavily visual work of this kind, it strikes me that you often almost need two chances to take it all in and process it effectively. There were elements that I missed, had half-forgotten or didn’t fully consider the first time around: the grey wash that repeatedly floods the stage, suggesting the surreal tedium of this existence; the shadowy, ghost-like movements visible behind the set’s plastic shroud; the importance of the childhood motifs that keep popping up.
This final strand was one that particularly struck me when watching the show at BAC. In this second encounter with the piece, the childlike behaviour that often characterises the performances suddenly seemed hugely, glaringly important to the whole thing. There are hints – in the items of school uniform, in the water guns spewing fake blood, in the gurning, exaggerated throes of death – of familiar playground games; playing dead, only here they aren’t playing at all. This recurring element also adds to the heightened and often hilarious tone of the show as a whole, which insistently draws out the ridiculousness of both life and death. It’s at once funny, tragic and grotesque.
Previously I had complained that the various striking scenes that make up The Various Lives of Infinite Nullity “feel like a string of stage images and little more”. Revisiting this opinion, I still feel that the piece is a little slight, but its images speak powerfully for themselves. Tea cups – ever-present symbols of banality – suddenly slice open throats; fake blood splatters against plastic; an innocuous skipping rope becomes a deadly weapon; a performer’s face is horrifyingly drenched in red liquid.
And then, perhaps, the most effective image of all: a woman lying on the floor, draped in plastic, her incessant, trivial chatter slowly muffled by a downfall of earth. Buried alive and still worrying about what to cook for dinner. Moments like this are when Clout Theatre are at their best, tapping into the essential absurdity of everyday existence and presenting it with a flourish of the surreal.