Originally written for Exeunt.
There is something both seductive and unsettling about eye contact. That flicker of glances across a busy train carriage; embarrassed yet oddly conspiratorial sidelong looks while standing in a queue; the jolt of meeting a performer’s gaze from the darkened safety of the audience. It is these awkward glimpses of one another, and the awkward bodies that accompany them, that are at the fluttering heart of Andy Field and Ira Brand’s new show. In their fragmentary, dreamlike journey through the landscape of love, the desire to look is always tied up with the impossibility of really seeing one another.
At the end of Nicholas Ridout’s book Passionate Amateurs, there is a sentence that struck me with the quiet sadness of its truth: “The theatre protects us from full communication”. And I wonder if therein lies its appeal. The theatre is a space in which we are forever straining towards those moments of connection and intimacy, safe in the knowledge – loathe as we may be to admit it – that genuine intimacy, the kind of intimacy that leaves us raw and exposed and vulnerable, is always deferred. We can get tantalisingly close to it, but it is ultimately closed off to us. Unlike love, which involves a breathless moment of letting go, in the theatre we can remain teetering on the precipice.
But this isn’t the whole story. Ridout goes on to suggest that this shielding from communication is perhaps why the theatre “is one of those odd places outside the most intimate of personal relations where it is possible to attempt such communication”. put your sweet hand in mine, in its delicate collision of bodies and gazes, feels like one such attempt. Inscribing intimacy in its staging, the piece sits audience members in two rows facing one another, separated by a distance similar to that down the middle of a tube train. We are invited, from the very beginning, to contemplate the face of the individual opposite, in much the same way as commuters snatch occasional looks at one another. But it is as much about our awkward failure to meet eyes, our failure to connect. It is surely not for nothing that Field and Brand’s pair of lovers are seated at different ends of their respective rows, only ever coming face to face when separated by an insurmountable distance.
The strange, startling discomfort of direct eye contact, a possibility that is played with throughout, is enhanced for me by finding myself sat opposite Field, who determinedly locks eyes with me as he delivers his lines. I am reminded of the long, stretched-out moments in Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart in which audience members are instructed to gaze into the eyes of the stranger opposite for the duration of the song “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. As then, the performative situation highlights for me the revealing nature of this simple act; despite myself, my eyes occasionally drop, a small, embarrassed smile stealing across my face.
Seated in this uncomfortably close, immediately charged formation, we are treated to fleeting snippets of a love story, or many love stories, depending on how you take it. Looks are exchanged in the anticipatory moments before a show; shy sentences are traded in a Metro carriage in Paris; bodies hold each other close in the dark and cold. I am tempted to say that there is more to put your sweet hand in mine than romantic love – because there is – but its gentle interrogation of everything love might be tangles these different possibilities together. The giddy, pulse-quickening head rush of infatuation, for instance, is evoked by a barrage of sensory information, part of which invites us to imagine a city torn apart by riots, bleeding together revolutionary passion and romantic desire.
For all the uneasiness and the determined stares at floor and ceiling, Field and Brand cradle their audience within the piece, making any discomfort productive rather than distressing. And the show they have crafted is playful as well as reflective, setting us at ease with gentle humour. Even as we laugh, however, it is underscored with a subtle hint of loss. The most affecting of the show’s metaphors – which are also invariably the simplest – are all to do with a sense of slipping away, a diminishing of possibilities. Melting ice is held tenderly in cupped hands, water dripping to the floor with the steady inexorability of tears.
In another of the show’s most dazzling moments, in which it is held unnervingly taut between playfulness and desolation, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” begins to play, greeted by a ripple of soft chuckles from the audience. On one level it’s a joke, one that trades on the groaning familiarity of the power ballad and its inflated packaging of emotion. But at the same time it feels overwhelmingly apt. Those well known lines, as overblown as they are packed with yearning, represent the unresolved, reaching note on which the show inevitably departs. I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.