“Sorry,” Tim Crouch looked into my eyes and said quietly as he pushed past into another room of Turners to continue his poetic and provocative two-person performance piece, “England,” at the BAC on Tuesday night. “Sorry”?!!?! I was amazed. Never have I been treated with such kindness and respect by a performance artist: not ignored or blamed or yelled at, but rather seen, cared for, genuinely invited to think. This dignity and earnestness is the backbone of “England,” a play which circles around the failures of communication and understanding.
“England” is technically about a heart transplant: The main character (played simultaneously by Crouch and Hannah Ringham) becomes very sick and his/her boyfriend (a very successful art dealer, as we are constantly reminded) finds him/her a new heart, from a man in an unspecified third-world country from whom the heart may or may not have been unfairly taken. But set this plot in an art gallery and infuse it with talk of art collection and beautiful spaces, extended silences and continual exhortations to “look,” and it becomes a thoughtful and layered exploration of the place of art in life, the difficulty of seeing and the possibility of translating experience between individuals and between cultures.
Though the script does not specify in which art gallery the play is to take place, the performance begins by firmly situating the performers and the audience in the gallery they happen to be in. On Tuesday night, Crouch and Ringham told us that we were in “The Yale Center for British Art, in New Haven, in America,” and gave us a brief history of Paul Mellon and Louis Kahn, before inviting us into the gallery. The introduction was slow and deliberate, punctuated by moments of silence, and Crouch and Ringham’s open and searching faces beamed, without being cheesy or facetious. The effect was mesmerizing. Crouch and Ringham won the audience within seconds; their wonder was infectious.
In the first act, Crouch and Ringham address the audience in a room of Turner paintings. But the paintings are flat and inadequate when set against the performers’ live dynamism. It feels impossible to draw one’s eyes away from the actors — their vitality is so much more palpable than that of the paintings. Though he/she never seems to act, his/her way of experiencing the world is in no way passive (his/her speech is characterized by awed descriptions of daily miracles). His/her mode of experience, in fact, seems to figure a new kind of action.
In the second act, Crouch and Ringham alternate between playing the main character and a translator, speaking to the wife of the man whose heart has allowed the character to live. Communication begins to break down: The widow tells him/her that the heart was unfairly bought, which he/she refuses to believe. To thank the widow, he/she offers her a piece of art and tells her, “It’s worth a lot of money,” and then as an afterthought, “It’s beautiful.” The heart and the artwork become metaphorical equivalents, both wounded by the assignment of a monetary value. “England” questions the effects of the commodification of art, and by extension, individuals.
We see also the pitfalls of translation, the impossibility of grasping and solidifying the other (here, poignantly, not even present). What happens when the stories we tell ourselves butt up against the stories other people tell? What happens when our narratives start to unravel?
One thing left strangely undiscovered in the piece is the relationship between the two performers. The narrative moves seamlessly between them — sometimes they finish each other’s sentences, sometimes they take turns speaking, sometimes, in more frenetic moments, they speak over each other. In the second act, they take turns playing the Act I character and the translator. When they swap it isn’t quite clear why. In a world where communication is so difficult, who are these two individuals who exist in such perfect balance? The brilliant effects of this strategy, however, cannot be glossed over. The use of two bodies to tell one first-person story destabilizes the naturalized connection between the body of the actor and the character she presents, between the thing itself and the thing communicated.
“Thank you. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. You saved my life,” are lines repeated throughout the play, a chorus addressed to the audience, Louis Kahn, the boyfriend, the doctor, the widow. They reinforce one of the play’s messages: that implicit in all experience is a connection to others. The play’s end focuses on the failures of communication, on the impossibility of connection. “What did she say? What is she saying? What did she say?” the main character desperately asks the translator. The performers take a bow, and the audience is left to arbitrate between the conflicting meanings, to situate for themselves the limits of experience and connection.