Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Running in the Rain

For many people, the thought of spending a Saturday night shivering in the cold and wet is practically nightmarish.

However, last Saturday I was very fortunate to do just that. Well, almost just that; the immersive, site-specific performance I was watching soon made me forget about the rain.

Along with a gaggle (in one case literally) of other umbrella'd spectators, I was in Hackney Wick to witness Run! City! Run!, the culmination of artist, writer, performer, and runner Sebastian Hau-Walker's Olympics-inspired year-long creative project.

I had very little idea of what to expect when I arrived at Hackney Wick. Happily however, I could dimly make out a plastic poncho-clad, slightly ominous figure hanging around under the bridge by the station, with a loudhailer strung around her neck.

She directed me around the corner, and another similarly dressed individual around the next corner, etc., etc., until I reached Sebastian. Atmospheric lighting and loud-hailed, garbled speech and sound accompanied me on my walk. 

This technique, of  leading the audience to the performance, building anticipation, is a tried and tested technique used by Dartington students and graduates. In my opinion, it's a very effective one, particularly in this case. It only added to the forbidden allure of this hidden corner of the city, with its crumbling warehouses, and dingy (possibly distinctly dodgy)alleyways.

At the "amassing point" where I met Sebastian, an atmosphere of excitement and curiosity was palpable. Sebastian fully played up to this, putting me in mind of a circus ringmaster calling "Roll up, roll up!" through his megaphone.

All at once, the performers I had "met" on my wander to the meeting point appeared, sprinting to position. Their movement struck a delicate balance between seeming carefully choreographed and completely improvised; rather like the practise of running in the city itself. It verged from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. The performers/runners (performance runners?) certainly portrayed themselves as heroes, but weren't afraid to send said heroics up.

Indeed, there was a rich vein of humour running (pun not intended) through Run! City! Run! For me (and others) this highlighted the absurdity of the lone, committed, ridiculously  attired runner in the city; where are they running to? Why? Will they keep running in circles? For what purpose?

The performance was consistently playful. It played on the conventions of performance art itself; the need to smuggle the more risky/risqué aspects of your piece past health and safety specifications, the desire to rebel against this, the ignoring of technical difficulties, or, conversely, the incorporation of technical difficulties into the performance.

Throughout, there was a real sense that "the show must go on"; the determination to make a successful performance seemed bigger than the fear of failure. After the performance, Sebastian spoke to me about his wish to make Run! City! Run! a "theatre of mistakes". At times it was difficult to discern whether some of the "mistakes" were in fact "errors", or just cheekily written in to add another level of playfulness. 

This "show must go on" mentality peaked towards the end of the performance, when Sebastian sang "Born Free" unaccompanied by voices or music, standing on a pile of old bricks inside a dark, dank warehouse. This moment was very uplifting and conveyed, at least to me, the joy of solitary running; that sense that you, alone, are master (or mistress) of the city.

In a segment of the performance entitled "Graffcity", the collective contortions of human bodies against a spray-painted city backdrop made me think of cities as people (which, arguably, we often don't in a metropolis) and of people as cities; colonies of body parts, organs and cells working together to make a whole.

Two special mentions should be given to non-human performers in Run! City! Run!; the megaphones, and, to an even greater extent, the rain. The megaphones were used to amplify the performer's voices, to record voice and background noise, and sometimes placed on the ground, leaving sonic traces of distilled breath around the performance site.

It was the rain, however, which really "made" the performance for me; it was as unrelenting as the runners, and highlighted the determination of athletes to train and run, whatever the weather. Another performer, Kirsten, told me afterwards that she was often slightly separate from the group, and constantly running, because she represented "the runner who trains harder and longer than anyone else".

With the rain also came atmosphere; it would be difficult for such a site not to be atmospheric, but the rain made it even more so, bringing an evocative scent of crumbling brick and mildew. Runners, of course, will know the best and quietest routes to make their lonely pilgrimages to, and it was that scent which reminded me of this.

A happy coincidence in the performance was the weather outside being mirrored by Chloe's weather forecast monologue; a moving image of cloud formation was projected on to her poncho as she stood on that same pile of bricks as Sebastian.

As Chloe's forecast grew increasingly apocalyptic, the audience members were ushered into a dimly lit "cellar shelter" area, which it transpired (when the lights went up!) was a bar. And thus we rounded off the evening with a drink, and with congratulations for the performers and for Sebastian, who masterminded it all. The performance was particularly impressive when you consider that two of the cast members only joined the company on the Monday before the final Saturday performance (the other two performances were on Thursday and Friday).

Run! City! Run! was such a rich artwork that I imagine it will take me some time to digest it fully. I only hope that its creator will have the opportunity to continue making such thought-provoking, entertaining immersive works.

All photographs by Marco Beradi


  1. Nice review! I just wish I'd done a bit more reading up about what the themes were going to be in advance rather than trying to piece it all together after the fact!

    I totally agree with you about how important the humour was in this. Generally I get a bit cheesed when a piece is all po-faced and solemn, so this was a bit refreshing.

    1. I think it helped that I knew the performers/went to Dartington/chatted to them afterwards. :)

      Oh, me too. There's so much humour inherent in "po-faced performance art" already, anyway. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that people can take themselves that seriously... I see it as a bit of a rookie error. I did that in first year, time to move on now! :P

      (God, I sound like a terrible snob... sorry.)