Soulless Depths [by James Wenley]
An hour before the show, Uther Dean is sitting on a couch in The Basement foyer, playing arcade games courtesy of Young & Hungry. He later hangs outside the venue. When it’s approaching the 9pm mark, he goes to the door to usher us in. Once we’re all in the Studio, he strolls in, finds his light, and immediately propels into Everything is Surrounded by Water. No apparent pre-performance ritual, no warm-up, no getting your head into the performance zone in the green-room, Uther is ready when we are.
It gibes with the origins of the show, written by Uther Dean and Hannah Banks (also director) of Wellington’s My Accomplice company, which was originally performed in his flat and other people’s homes in the Wellington Fringe earlier this year (for which it won Best Solo).
But I’m so struck by Uther’s apparent pre-show casualness, even laxness, because Everything is Surrounded by Water likes to mess with our notions of what it is and what it is doing; truth and artifice. Uther says he is no actor, this is not a show, but he wants to tell us a story, it’s his 56th time doing it. 90-95% of what he’s telling us is true, he claims, but not the parts we think. Water is like a 21st Century slacker spin on the Doctor Faustus narrative. Dean’s anxiety is that he has no essence when, after a series of humorously long-winded narrated events that gets him to this point in the story, he receives a medical opinion that he is lacking a soul. Turns out he gave it away as a child on a post-it note*. It’s a post-modern meta-text, continually making fun of its own construction and the Wellington jokes that are lost on its Auckland audience. It’s a tightly structured stream-of-consciousness, there’s looseness to its form, but it hits its beats with honed precision.
How to describe Uther Dean? He will sympathise when I say I feel like I’ve been stalking him for some time – I’ve seen his name and work come up as I’ve lurked online in discussion of Wellington theatre. Water marks the first work from the the highly productive My Accomplice company in Auckland, and Dean says at the end of the show its embarrassing that it has taken this long. Dean is a theatre critic, a playwright, and as he might conceptualise, a complex human being with an interior world just as remarkable as your own.
He hurtles through his narrative at pace, only occasionally pausing to see if the threaded jokes have hit or missed. We soon relax into a mutual comfort as Dean settles in his chair (and occasionally stands for emphasis). There’s a question around performance conceit: to what extent is the Uther Dean that is performed Uther Dean? He peppers his dialogue with plenty of ‘you knows’, and ‘rights’, appealing for our approval and understanding. There’s a polished-unpolished quality, stumbles are embraced, and he communes with us with sensitivity, earnestness, and a sweetness of intensity.
Sam Mence’s delicate lighting states matches Dean’s storytelling to evoke the tone of the account just right. Dean takes delight in apparently taking control and changing the lighting with a snap of his figures.
Dean’s Wellington is suffocatingly small, sometimes embarrassing, often supernaturally magical. Dean says he has an “imagination so vivid, it terrifies me”. It is the surreal imaginative leaps that the show takes that lodge a strong impression in my mind, particularly the vision of Dean as a man rapidly fragmenting as he nears the end of his tale. It’s a story that wants to surprise us (he starts first with an odd story that happened to someone else about a relationship that was not as it seems), but also reward our attention with connections and links, and it balances these impulses well.
Dean often states that the story is going to get dark, but while he creates his dark and beautiful imagery and we can understand it is mental illness that is being metamorphosed, we remain (intentionally?) distanced from Water’s potential heart of darkness. The story becomes a quest narrative to retrieve the post-it note soul, superseding the initial absence. Water teeters in becoming too soaked in its meta-metaphors and own cleverness, a barrier to empathy. We want Dean to get his soul back, because that feels right, but the tangible remains submerged. Or if you will, he plays with the idea of baring his soul, but doesn’t completely.
Does it matter? We can admire the delicate texture, the structure, the pop-culture richness, and imaginative reach of Water. It’s greedy to ask for much more, and we wouldn’t want him to lose it again.
* I say Doctor Faustus, but perhaps more accurately Water spins off The Simpsons. His story sets off a distant echo in my mind from an endless Simpsons re-run where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse on a piece of paper, and tries to get it back. That’s a good description actually. Water is a poeticised Simpson’s episode.
Everything is Surrounded by Water is presented by My Accomplice and plays at The Basement until 11 October. Details see The Basement.