by George Mann
If we’d remembered that rower, would we have sensed it?
How our journey was cursed?
Would his empty sockets, his hands on the oars
have made us more wise?
Would we have known the only coins we’d be taking
were the ones on our tongues, the ones on our eyes?
Owen Sheers, the writer of Pink Mist, is referring to Banksy’s Skeleton Rower, sprayed on the side of the Bristol’s infamous pub-on-a-boat, the Thekla. It’s a haunting image made more prescient in the play by the three lads who decide one fateful night in the Thekla to leave Bristol and join the army. They do this “just inches from that Banksy sprayed on the otherside”.
At the beginning of this week I started work on ACT 2 – Hads’ Story. I couldn’t get this image out of my head. This is the only reference to Banksy in the piece – but for me the skeleton rower is present – it haunts the entire poem. So I had been thinking a lot about finding this particular moment – something that could haunt the piece and the audience through the actors bodies – in the same way it haunts the reader (well, me anyway!).
Eleven years ago I was going through my first year at the Lecoq school in Paris – those two years training in Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy represent one of the most challenging but exhilarating periods in my life to date. In your first year you have to learn The Twenty Movements – movements of nature, sport, and so on. One of those movements is rowing. It’s simple but difficult to achieve. The rowing movement harnesses both pushing and pulling, the arms and hands move through a figure of eight shape like the Ad Infinitum symbol in mathematics, the pelvis (the core part of nearly all full body movement) is engaged – tilting forward and backward, pushing forward, pulling back, evoking on a smaller scale that which the viewer can perceive to be happening throughout the whole body. As the actor moves in this way, they have to harness the dynamic of water – it’s weight and resistance, for example. There are many other details – but it culminates in a movement creates the rower, the boat, and the water, and the space around the rowing given by the actors eyes – all at once – I think it’s deceptively complex, but simply beautiful.
So this was my starting point. I took time with the company to teach them the movement – it’s a technical feat and it’s hard not to get swamped in the technique and thereby lose the ease and beauty of ‘rowing’. But I’m fortunate to be working with a physically skilled group! Once they had the movement as a base, I started working to find what would be the skeleton rower – I had to find a way to transpose what I was starting with.
Part of what helped us find this movement was Jon Nicholls’ excellent talent and intuition as a sound designer. He proposed a song by local legends Massive Attack – for me it evoked the perfect atmosphere, there’s a drive to the song, like something moving inevitably towards its end, and it really suited the moment. It inspired us to slow the movement right down, and I asked the actors to push and pull their imaginary oars with more intensity, more effort. Imagining the River Styx from Greek Mythology, I imagined that rowing through such waters would not be easy. And I asked the company to keep their hands flat – so that from side on, where the audience will watch this take place, we will see the open flat palmed hands paint for us a rather more haunting and emphasised figure of eight – Ad Infinitum, meaning without end, and also limitless – like death itself.
Seeing the chorus perform this movement, along with the proposed music from Jon was an exciting moment – I think, we have found something haunting and beautiful, I hope it will haunt the audience, just as Owen Sheer’s beautiful poem, Pink Mist has haunted me and many others too.