“Water’s Rising, at Their Ankles Now…”

For our latest Members’ Post, we see James Murray-White return to ClimateCultures fresh from a trip to Hull, City of Culture 2017. James brings us his review of the remarkable and immersive performance of ‘FLOOD’, a production “stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world.”

This past weekend I happened to be in Hull, City of Culture 2017, and stumbled upon an extraordinary multi-media and immersive piece of theatre about climate change and the human condition. ‘FLOOD’ is a year-long project, written by James Phillips and produced by Slung Low, a theatre company based in Leeds that ‘specialise in making unlikely, original and ambitious adventures for audiences.’ And they excelled with this production, told in a dock on the edge of Hull.

Part climate change drama, part biblical parable of human foibles and virtues and community self-determination, and chiefly a story of humanity telling its story in and about a “city by the sea”, ‘FLOOD’ is a captivating, urgent, and sometimes mesmerising drama, told in the water it tells of. 

‘FLOOD’ Omnibus opening night Photograph: James Phillips © 2017 http://flood.hull2017.co.uk/flood-omnibus-opening-night/_mj47736/

Setting it and performing it in the dock – with the audience clustered round the railings looking down into it and the action happening on a floating set tied together and sometimes coming apart, with little boats navigating to and from them, and even actors in the salty brine, “near drownded” – makes this a literally immersive piece, engaging the audience’s senses while we huddled and shivered as one in awe, and a lot of sadness.

“A drowned girl but….”

The drama takes us into several characters’ experiences of sudden, violent change. It’s held by a central character, who we come to know as Gloriana. We first meet her as she’s ferried into dock by a fisherman and his son, telling of “one net empty of all fish. In it, one hundred life jackets. Orange like those migrants leave on beaches. One hundred life jackets and a girl. Curled pale naked, just bandages on hands. A drowned girl but….”

Gloriana is very much living flesh and blood, but after her ordeal has resurrected into a reflection back upon each characters’ motivation and input into life. She’s received by Jack, an officer in a detention centre, and their lives become interlinked. Gloriana meets Johanna in the centre, described as an Iraqi Christian; and then Natasha – former Overseas Minister and now Lady Mayor – and her daughter Kathryn. These and the fisherman and his son Sam all hold the drama fast and furiously, bound to each other as water to land, and sea to sky, as humans caught in trauma, seeking salvation.

Slung Low’s Flood Part Two: Abundance By James Phillips Gets Underway Image: Hu17.net © 2017 http://www.hu17.net/2017/04/13/slung-lows-flood-part-two-abundance-by-james-phillips-gets-underway/

The drama reaches into our current migrant crisis, and the ex-Minister’s role is partly to provide an exploration of guilt and political responsibility around this issue. This theatre piece took place in a city covered in statues to its former ‘great and the good’, from Ferens and Wilberforce to De La Pole, all of whom are honoured but who all might now be seen to be culpable in the light of current political thinking, be it on votes for war, whaling, lack of action on carbon measures, or similar. The presence of a character who has sanctioned wars, who now has the opprobrium of her daughter and protestors outside her house and who takes a role as a leader when the floating islands become a necessity, opens up a whole strand of moral dialogue, guilt, and responsibility. Like writer James Phillips, I’ve also spent time volunteering at the Calais Jungle, where many thousands of refugees have headed in the hope of getting to the UK; once you witness such a place and hear some of the stories about fleeing atrocities, both human and climate-caused, then the full spectrum of humanity gets peeled back, and any response is a response.

A thing worth living for

Once the characters are afloat on the islands, bound together in tents, nailed together with pallets and bodged together as a refuge, then we see three different and distinct camps. The first, led by Johanna, uses faith to hold itself together, even evolves to sending out missionaries in boats to proselytise that faith to other survivors (which then horribly backfires). The second, led by Natasha, is titled Renaissance as a bastion of ‘law and order’, despite the Government in the South falling and power being shown to be nothing other than what we construct it to be. And in the third camp Sam, the fisherman’s son, gains power by violence and control; torture and murder dominate on his island. None of these three options appeal to me – so I would be a lone wolf, snaking between them all in my kayak, bartering fish in exchange for human contact and a little piece of the values that each offers.

Gloriana lives, and is either revered (by Johanna) or feared and hated (by Sam), and tries to reflect back to every character their inner nature; including Kathryn, with whom she falls in love. Her journey as a presumed fleeing migrant, with letters carved into her fingers and signs of torture upon her body, to death in the water, resurrection in the net and then becoming an angel upon the water – and literally sailing off into the rising sun – is the redeemer’s journey. The arc of the entire play is that all we have as humans is love. Faith may sometimes help, and faith will bring troubles upon us, but love will give us something worth living for. An unusual thread of lost love between the fisherman and the Lady Mayor brings an extra complexity that weaves within the narrative.

The night I saw FLOOD was the omnibus event, so we saw part two on the water, were herded to a nearby marquee to watch part three on a screen, then returned to the dock for part four. This helped to engage us further, pulling us together with the bribery of heat and tea and food, reminding us of communality and needs, while the characters were suffering the greatest calamity known to humankind.

‘Thousands Of Life Jackets Laid Out In Parliament Square In Moving Tribute To Refugees’ Image: SWNS news agency © 2016 Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com

“Where we are, we are, and on we must go.”

Part one of this epic had already been screened online, and I understand that part three will be available for a limited time on BBC iPlayer, and clips are on the FLOOD website. So the scope of the production is being mediated both live and online and I hope it reaches a wide audience, as it needs to be seen. Standing watching the drama – encompassing back-projection onto water, water sprayed as rain above the actors, fire on stage, and the constructed encampment-islands amidst the water, as the characters become migrants on the world’s seas – is a visceral experience which will forever bind me to the story and the experiences being told. That is very different to watching anything on a screen, but the two ways of experiencing this drama make for a very powerful and urgent experience.

For me personally, as a graduate from Hull University’s drama department, which I left many years ago to head off into a career in the arts and became disillusioned by a theatre system that seemed dull and even unconscious during the 90’s and noughties, seeing this production in Hull, amidst a vibrant year of culture – stimulating and prodding and exploring our humanity and responses to the world – is joyous and so exciting.

The bigger picture, well – where will we go from here? As creatives, mediating dialogues and inquiry across artforms, as leaders, as animals within a system, and as a species afoot in the world? We may be bringing the rains down upon our heads, and there may be individuals or systems we can follow, and there will always be love.

“One dawn sailing far out towards the rising sun.
Where we are we should not be and yet
Where we are, we are, and on we must go,
What new world lay ahead we did not know,
Eyes facing front, vanishing world behind.”
 - FLOOD, by James Phillips

And the last line of stage directions from the play: ‘A little boat disappearing into the light. ‘

Find out more

You can catch up with the FLOOD story and watch videos at its official Hull 2017 site, and with other Hull UK City of Culture 2017 activities.

The BBC’s showing of Part 3 wasn’t available at the time of publishing this post – but it’s the BBC, so it will no doubt be round again before you know it! Check out the episode page on their site.

You can see ‘FLOOD – the story so far’ on YouTube

You can explore some of the issues around sea level rise, coastal change and flooding affecting the Humber region, including Hull, at the EU FloodProBE site.

You can find out about the work of the UNHCR  the UN’s refugee agancy – on climate change and refugees.

Questioning the camps? Space for creative thinking...  

"In FLOOD, the people divide into three camps - faith, law and violence. Snaking your way between these camps and more, belonging to none, what tangible things would you kayak between them to show each a broader way?"  

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link! 

 

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Returning to a theme of ‘Wicked Cultures’ for ‘Wicked Problems’, I give my personal review of John Gardner’s Grendel, a 1971 novel that speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our monsters insist on coming back in.

“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

The British Museum – Beowulf. You can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection, and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky

Jeffery Jerome Cohen – Monster culture (seven theses), in Cohen J (ed), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996, University of Minnesota Press

John Gardner –  Grendel, 1971, Gollancz

David Wright –  Beowulf (a prose translation), 1957, out of print