The End is Nigh

Jordan Brookes: I've Got Nothing - 4 stars | Are we not drawn onward to new erA - 4 stars | Landscape (1989) - 3 stars

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
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Are we not drawn onward to new erA
Published 11 Aug 2019

“Just a little joke while the world burns,” Jordan Brookes chirps, checking his watch. It’s a tic that recurs throughout his bewildering hour onstage, as this personable comic wonders exactly how long he’s got left. How long we’ve got left.

I’ve Got Nothing (4 stars) is a show for end times. Climate catastrophe hovers overhead, Brexit burns in the background and Brookes’ own mental health (“the apocalypse up here”) bubbles away underneath. But for all it rattles with assorted anxieties, Brookes' show still feels like a blessed relief. If anything, the backdrop of doom elevates his daredevil semi-structured, semi-improvised style into something oddly profound. It’s as if he’s killing time before it kills us all. The least we can do is play along.

His set is a sly mix of the catastrophic and the clownish. He imagines a cool head in a plane crash, finishing off Marley and Me while plummeting to death, and every 14 minutes, an average human attention span, he jiggles around like jelly just to keep us alert. An extended riff on instructions for seducing one’s own mum—at gunpoint, in fairness—is squirm-inducing, but sharp. “It’s a metaphor,” he yells. “My mum is the earth.” In fact, it’s sharper still: a nifty critique for humanity’s ability to imagine the worst and still head towards it. We shrug off warnings of our own devastation.

Two years ago, Brookes broke through with a load of beginnings. This time, he strings out a succession of false endings, dropping routines mid-sentence to dart full pelt at the exit or raising a hand, thanking us and striding offstage – only to return. He oversees more blackouts than Jim Callaghan and, indeed, loops so many finales back-to-back that, with a startling bravado, he lops off the last chunk of his show (or, seen differently, bumps off a third of his crowd.) It’s brilliantly uneasy—is that it, are we done?—but it lifts comedy to critical intervention: an evisceration of humanity’s inability to face facts.

Belgian collective Ontroerend Goed are toying with the same territory in their new show. Like its palindromic title, Are we not drawn onward to new erA (4 stars), it mirrors itself down the middle: the second half undoing or erasing the first. It’s an improbable feat, if not an impossible one.

Its beginning doubles up as an ending: a woman and an apple tree; paradise or post-civilisation. Hellos could be goodbyes; first kisses, farewells. A statue goes up only to come straight back down. Is that progress or simple destruction? They set themselves impossibilities to overcome. Apples are consumed, trees stripped to the trunk. Plastic bags drop from the sky. Can we put the world back together? Can humanity clean up after itself?

No other company pushes the possibilities of performance like Ontroerend Goed and this picks at the very nature of theatre. An ephemeral artform, it leaves nothing behind and yet, it does; whatever happened onstage can’t be erased. The two entwine here, and elegantly so – even if the reliance on technological trickery feels, at first, like a cop out.

In fact, its meaning takes time to come through. More than artful composition and a display of skill, whereby gobbledygook suddenly makes sense and concealed storylines are revealed in reverse, it also makes a virtue of ambiguity. As we watch the world go into reverse, that fuzzy feeling of hope contains a nagging doubt. Is it all an illusion or could technology get us out of this mess?

Time has a way of springing surprises. Landscape (1989) (3 stars) looks back to the conclusion of the Cold War; that moment Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”. It brought with it a sigh of relief, as the threat of nuclear annihilation effectively dissolved. Nowadays, all that seems naïve. Emerging duo Emergency Chorus hop into that lull (before they were born) to watch the world ending almost unseen – not with a bang, but with a fever.

In a gentle, oblique hour, such ideas hang off a small science project-style study of mushrooms – nature’s hardiest survivors. Halfway through, they microwave a bunch of them for a full seven minutes to no effect, before cooking them up on a slow, sizzling hob in a quiet, post-apocalyptic woodland scene. What radiation can’t destroy, a little heat can. It just takes that much longer.

To see that, we need to shift our sense of time. Dwelling on the world’s largest living organism, the 2,400 year-old ‘Humungous Fungus’ of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, Landscape (1989) tries to slide out of human time into mushroom time; to see the planet and its history afresh. It is itself a lull: an hour that passes, quietly and contentedly, without much going on: a few lists, an anecdote or two, a goofy dance routine. Like the mushrooms that sustained a young, homeless John Cage, Landscape (1989) offers just enough substance to sustain our attention. A real step-up from a very promising duo, Clara Potter-Sweet and Ben Kulvichit, this cute, off-beat piece watches on as the world winds to its end.