Surreal and immersive are wildly overused expressions, but I think I can get away with them in this context.
I’ve been to see… perhaps ‘experience’ is a better word…
I’ve experienced 8Rojo’s The Lost Hours at the Vault Festival. It was dizzying, surreal, sometimes nightmarish, truly immersive and somewhat overwhelming. I don’t want to forget it, so I’ve written about it.
I’m seeing a lot of stuff at this year’s festival. I’d booked to see this because I had a gap between shows, and I was intrigued by the publicity image (I was hooked by the potential of a live-action Brothers Quay experience). But I had no idea what I was actually going to.
The Vault Festival is sprawling and inevitably confusing at times, but they do a great job of signposting and directing people to the more unusual spaces and venues. There are several board outside the main entrance around which audiences gather, to be escorted elsewhere.
I found the board for The Lost Hours and stood in what I assumed to be the queue. It wasn’t a queue, it was a member of the Vault Festival team plus friends doing card tricks. Of course it was.
“Don’t mind us we’re, err… never mind.. are you here for the 7:30 slot?” My name was taken and I was directed towards a shipping container a little way away.
Oh, I thought, this can’t be very popular if I’m the only one booked for the 7:30 slot.
When I arrived at the shipping container it had an elasticated security cord across the entrance. There was nobody around. I walked to the side and back to the entrance and, as if by magic, as if he were Mr Benn’s shopkeeper, a man appeared.
He asked me to read through some text to give context to the show.
Salvador Dalí grew up in Figueres, Catalonia. He and his sister Ana Maria were close throughout their childhood but Salvador rejected all past associations when he reinvented himself as the eccentric surrealist. They never met again.
This show (apparently) imagines Salvador’s last moments, on his death-bed, back in Figueres, his fevered dreams and memories, perhaps his regrets at losing the sister he’d loved so dearly.
OK… I’ve got that, what happens next.
“This is a show for one,” the man said. That’s a lot of pressure, I thought.
“The performance is for 15 minutes.” Is that disappointing or a bit of a relief? I don’t have time to decide.
“You’ll be seated in wheelchair, throughout.” the man said. Christ, I thought, that’s weird.
“It will be dark. I want you to close your eyes as soon as you sit in the chair. Don’t open them again until I tap you twice on the shoulder.”
Too late to back out now. I might as well embrace the experience.
I stumbled and struggled to get into the chair. I made a real meal of it. Maybe it was a delaying tactic.
“Are you ready?”
No, I’m not. My feet aren’t on the footrests and my brain is lagging behind me, unable to decide what threat level to ascribe to what’s going on.
OK. I’m on, I’m in, I’m beside myself.
I’m wheeled back… and forth and side to side. There’s music playing, voices speaking. It’s all deliberately disconcerting. I really want to open my eyes but I really don’t want to ruin the performance – I am the only audience member after all.
The double-tap comes. Eyes open and there’s a figure looming down on me (masked in a bulbous face like a Spanish cartoon). The figure kneels before me and holds out a hand.
I place my hand parallel to theirs. I nod my head with the universal unspoken language of: What do I do? What are the rules of engagement? Am I suppose to hold your hand?
They nod back to signal it’s all going to be OK. I grasp their hand, they envelope mine.
They take a small wooden box and place it on my lap. They open it to reveal… I can’t quite remember.
The whole experience is like a fading dream. I don’t want to lose it.
Snatches come back to me but the sequences don’t align. Here’s how I remember it, I’ve no idea how accurate those memories are….
I’m spun around.
There is movement and dancing.
There’s a clock tick, tick, tick ticking.
Handheld LED candles give form from the shadows.
Clothes are draped.
Silhouettes are thrown.
People, dressed in loose white suits, and crinolined skirts, each with a papier-mâché face, cigars in mouths, caps on heads, loom down on me.
I’m trapped by the chair and social convention.
I’m wheeled around as the action fades into darkness behind me and new characters illuminate in front.
At times the space feels vast, at others it’s oppressive; there must be nine of us in this very confined space.
As I am wheeled, a corridor of cloth is hoisted either side of me, brushing my hands, gripped to the arms of the wheelchair. To my left, close to the ground, is a face caught in the low lights. A male figure (Salvador) stares past me through to the other side of the corridor. And I can just see, through the cloth wall, Anna-Maria’s face staring back. They rise, they mirror each other, they chuckle, the cloth falls and they are gone.
The clock is still tick, tick, tick ticking.
The crowd is back, this time in animal skulls, dancing around me in a macabre ritual. They’re holding umbrellas. They open them one by one, each with a flourish that fills the claustrophobic container space, lights behind them, forming a ball of illumination. No, it’s not just a ball, it’s an eyeball.
It’s mostly black and white which makes the moments of intense colour all the more vivid.
A tiny model house, lit from within, has an eyeball on the roof.
A monster’s face is conjured from red LEDs, or maybe it was a religious headdress.
There’s a ball of butterflies; no, it’s flowers.
There’s a bell chiming.
A preacher towers with a crucifix in place of his head.
Then Anna-Maria is by my side. She bends and places a tender butterfly kiss on my forehead.
I’m wheeled back, and forth and the door opens and the dream is over.
I want to shout my approval, show my appreciation. I only manage a feeble clap as the door is shut behind me.
I stumble into the street. I want to tell everyone what just happened to me. But they are just getting on with their own lives, oblivious to what just happened in that shipping container.
And slowly I assimilate back into the real world.
The dream fragments and I’m left with snatches of memories but a feeling that will take much longer to fade.
The Lost Hours: First and Last Moments of Salvador and Ana María Dalí was created, crated and performed by the Canadian company 8Rojo. If you ever get a chance to see anything they do, I’d urge you to grab it.