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palace grand: grand illusion

eleanor hadley kershaw

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

 Jonathan Young, Palace Grand, Jonathan Young, Palace Grand,
photo Tim Matheson
The fourth wall is covered with a taut opaque material. In the centre is a square hole: we look into a small cube. Against the painted backdrop of this floating box—a snowy, mountainous Canadian landscape, in turn-of-the-19th century picturesque style—a thin man with a bushy beard, the Tracker (Jonathan Young), opens a suitcase. In black boots, overcoat, black goggles and fedora, his deliberate and exaggerated in movement, stooped yet graceful, is part silent film comedian, part film noir private detective. He is a showman, a performer. The case is his recording device; he sets spools rolling within. He mimes to a voiceover of his own voice piped into the auditorium, as though speaking live. The voiceover mumbles as the Tracker pushes fur onto a can attached to the end of a tripod slung over his shoulder. Aha! A boom microphone! He creeps around the miniature stage, picking up the sound of mosquitoes, wind, the crunching of snow. Soundtrack and live action occur simultaneously, neither leading the other. “Cut that!", the voiceover snaps. “And that.” “Leave that.” And, we are told, a distant roar (what is it?) contaminates Walker’s recordings.

A white curtain drops to cover the miniature stage. An even smaller hole in the wall, on the left, is dimly lit. The same bearded man, now stripped down to thermal underwear, has cans over his ears: vintage headphones. His movement more subtle than before, he pulls plugs from a switchboard. No longer performer, he is now facilitator. Techie. Operator. Silent listener. We hear the same voiceover: “Cut that.” He pulls out a plug and the buzzing of mosquitoes disappears. “And that.” Another pin removed and the whistling of the wind is gone. The Operator dismantles the recording until all that is left is the previously imperceptible, ominous rumbling of the distant roar, somehow evocative of the emptiness of this northern territory. The voice tells us that there is an operator out there, receiving these signals and messages. The Operator snaps upright, as if his personal space has been invaded. The voice continues: there is nothing between man and outpost apart from the signal of the message. “I’m just letting him know that he still means something to somebody”. The voice begins to chuckle, and the Operator laughs too, happy with this acknowledgment, perhaps relieved at the human connection in this vast wilderness. But the recorded laugh becomes warped and manic. The terrified Operator frantically pulls out all the plugs but the laughter won’t stop.

Earlier on in Palace Grand, by Vancouver’s Electric Company, we have been introduced to Walker the Writer-Explorer, the first facet of Young’s tripartite character, and his expedition to reclaim a mining shaft abandoned after the Klondike Gold Rush. Having dressed himself—top hat, waistcoat, spats, monocle, pencil—in a slapstick routine accompanied by stylised captions projected onto the screen wall that fills the stage (“Tonight only at the Palace Grand…”), he sits on a stool, scribbling onto a stack of paper. A projection of scrawled handwriting tells us that this man can’t be trusted. Has he written it himself? It’s not only this man, and his fragmented personality, that we shouldn’t trust. The world around him (or his perception of it) plays games with him, shifting the goalposts at the blink of an eye, the raising of a curtain. And the whole production plays games with us, throwing meaning over our heads to its miniature alter ego while we jump up trying to intercept the baffling game of catch.

Sophisticated technology in the structure and form of the show (alarming electronic sound interspersed with upbeat country jigs; projections of text, photographs and static onto the beautiful rabbit warren of caverns in the fourth wall; the perfectly timed uncovering and recovering of these holes) contrasts with rudimentary representations of technology within the show’s world (tin cans, a rocking chair sleigh, cotton wool puffs of smoke pulled by hand from a picture of a steam ship). As Tracker’s journey to the desolate north to try to find Walker, or what remains of him, is played out—bounty hunting and performance as metaphor for our existential search for self and meaning—theatre, writing, record-keeping are questioned as methods of investigating or representing life. We hear this man’s recordings, we see his scribblings, and there is a continuous and anxious ambiguity about which element of his personality is communicating to whom and when. This is the “Portrait of the Prospector writing a Self-Portrait of the Prospector.” This is Krapp’s Last Tape set against the fallout of the Gold Rush and the decline of vaudeville theatre. Its postmodern paradoxes will drive you mad chewing on your tail, if not chasing it round in a circle. Once you enter the fun fair hall of mirrors you might well get lost in your own eternal reflection.

In a classic postmodern sequence, the Tracker (or Walker, or the Operator: it’s getting harder to distinguish) has entered the empty cabin he believes to be Walker’s hideaway, only to find no trace of a body. He’s in a vaudeville theatre, we can hear the canned laughter and applause of an excitable audience. But as the red safety curtains open the sound cuts out. All we see are two electrically powered, sculpted hands rising up from a plinth, clapping mechanically. Later he finds a camera, some kind of simple projector: a small black box. He inserts two sticks into the edges of the camera, and two giant sticks simultaneously enter at either side of the floating box stage, threatening to knock him and camera to the ground. Confused, he stops. He decides to signal from the window of the cabin. He faces upstage and flashes the projector on and off blinding the audience. Are we looking in at him from the other side of the window? We lose track of time, of place, of where our position is in this relay. We see a body curled up in the cabin, its face a skeletal mask. We read handwriting that steadily becomes shakier: “It’s you who discovers the body. No-one else is watching but you.” He has run out of supplies. “These words are the only thing keeping me alive."

And now, as I write, the impact of the visual and technological accomplishment of the show long past, these words are the only thing keeping me awake. From the opaque material of Palace Grand and the many interpretations I’m on the brink of unearthing from its postmodern mine, the resonating idea with which I am left is the danger of trying to read too much into it. Like the Tracker and his distant roar, I’m trying to hear too much. In the same way he doesn’t recognise his own voice or scrawl, I’m not recognising that which is right in front of me: the need to stop searching for answers, truth and gold.

Electric Company, Palace Grand, writer, performer, set designer Jonathan Young, director Kevin Kerr, lighting and set designer John Webber, video designer David Hudgins, additional video Jamie Nesbitt, properties design Rick Holloway, additional properties Stephan Bircher, sound design Kevin Kerr, Meg Roe, Allessandro Juliani, movement Serge Bennathan, costume design Kirsten McGhie, scenic painter Marianne Otterstom, technical director Harry Vanderschee; Waterfront Theatre, Vancouver, Jan 30-Feb 2

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg.

© Eleanor Hadley Kershaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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