Candidly referencing Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 sci-fi classic The Dispossessed, Ambiguous Utopia is a glorious menagerie of science, fantasy and art. The experimental show intertwines the practices of Gayle Meikle, Ross Hamilton Frew and Simon Raven with performances from artists Ciara Lenihan, Victoria Toi and Ken Wai-Yee Mallon. Old and new works can be seen throughout, with some being enacted by the cast and others forming part of the unworldly set. Alongside the semantically improbable collages of Frew’s ‘Colourless Green Ideas’ (2016), which are a fitting inclusion, are new hexagonal structures that are reminiscent of absolute sovereign borders and chemical symbols fused together.
Split into three acts, the triptych of events is narrated first by Frew, then by Meikle and finally as a solely performative crescendo that features the remaining ensemble. Meikle has created the text that acts as backdrop and setting for the performances, which is written with the utmost grace and sincerity. Frew speaks solemnly of ‘flaking eczema’, the ‘gentle caress of knowledge’ and imagery of saddling oneself with debt. This is synonymous with Raven’s character, who seemingly punishes himself in exile, never venturing beyond the impeding glow of the projector in Socratean masochism; could this be the allegory of the artist?
Frew speaks out: ‘That no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.’ And it thrums with meaning. Implores the audience to take heed. Whether it be a coming together of hands, or a ceremonial taking of fruit, the significance of knowing your own presence is paramount.
In the second act, Meikle’s soothing words echo the discontent of a generation. It unites performer and audience in common understanding, hovering in the distance like poetic justice. A fluid body roll cuts across the centre of the room, a lone wanderer shields his face with his hand. Toi swims effortlessly through the scene with the fluidity of Eros, while Mallon labours away at water and clay.
Meikle says: ’A slowing of time to dirty our grubby hands.’
A kick! A grunt! The stuffy air in the room transforms into an air of caution. Then a whirlwind of revolt explodes from Lenihan’s body to put the audience into a state of subconscious frenzy. Empowerment suddenly exudes from the performers into the audience. And it is clear that the third act is not merely to watch, but to experience.
Raven is now the revolutionary left behind as Lenihan, Toi and Mallon come together to enforce cooperation in an uncooperative world. It evokes echoes of Frew’s words from the first act, when he declared that ‘group work is the best form of work’. Little did we know at the time, he was foretelling the climax of this story.
The craft of performance, the editing of the scenery and the reclamation of the body come together to culminate in a triumphant finale. It is futile to try and point to one stand out aspect: Meikle’s text was mesmerising, Frew’s assemblage unparalleled and the indulgent and powerful performances all products of collaboration. Using The Dispossessed as a basis for the show has proved triumphant. An utterly dominant display from all those involved and an absolute delight to experience.
Ambiguous Utopia, The Northern Charter, Newcastle upon Tyne, One-off performance 26 May 2017.
Liam McCabe is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.