Spill at Orwell Bridge

I was very excited about going to Spill festival and I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Not performing in it meant I could wholly enjoy other acts, which was a treat. Looking at the programme in advance, without inside knowledge I found it hard to anticipate what would be most interesting. Some of the descriptive language just leaves me guessing.

There was only one thing I decided I would definitely go to, apart from the Symposium on Wednesday 26th October. That was the Strand walk by Mark Offord. This was partly dictated by my homeward travelling plans, as unfortunately I had to leave Spill in mid-flow for a pre-arranged job in London. I could either leave Friday evening or Saturday morning, and the latter meant I could do the walk. Although it entailed taking a convoluted journey back to work due to the rail replacement coach from Witham, I was unperturbed as the walk promised to visit nearby coastline and get out of the town. Coming from the built up capital I am so grateful to see some of the natural environment, some Suffolk wilderness.

By Friday night I had been completely wowed by extraordinary acts I had witnessed. There was Elaine Mitchener listing the names imposed on African slaves and the price they were sold for, from the pulpit of the atmospheric Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House which was built in 1700 and remains unaltered. There was the awesome looped violin (“…full body immersion of soaring strings and spiralling sound…”) in Alicia Jane Turner’s ‘Breathe’. Spoken word raps about refugees in Shabazi’s ‘Terra Nullius’ from within the museum; 6 dancing and story telling performers moving towards nudity – with their heads covered in clay, in ‘Another Bald Dead Woman’; Vijay Patel’s emotive recollection of growing up in a corner shop (and then escaping to perform karaoke in drag) – this unexpectedly really moved me. It wasn’t polished like some of the others, but the message was felt more strongly. It reminded me of the Indian kids I was at school with, and the overt racism at the time. The recording of a male relative recounting the early days of the family’s migration in the ’70s from Uganda, and the hard work that went into settling in the UK, added powerfully to this piece. Tania Camara’s ‘Me, Myself And My Oreos’ was a superb act to follow. She whitened her skin with the filling from oreo biscuits, and gradually got messier (a popular theme with performance artists), dancing with liquid and powder. Again a voice recording set this off terrifically; this time MP Diane Abbott describing overcoming the racism she encountered as a teenager in school. Similarly it took us back in time, an eloquent voice describing the sometimes invisible struggle of minority migrant populations. Critically these examples appropriated by Patel and Camara, evoked times when although racism was more mainstream, there was at least an economy they could integrate into quite well. It struck a chord with migration and the refugee crisis now. Finally, Robert Hesp got messy with a petroleum based lubricant, and his moves were mesmerising in ‘Hard C*ck’. Chicken meat and bones featured, and a deliberately awkward audience encounter; overall it was Hesp’s flawless execution that drew me in.

I was sorry not to see the rest of the festival as the momentum had just been building and I had gradually become familiar with the streets, venues and a few friendly faces. I woke early as necessary for the Strand walk, and made my way to the meeting point. A circle of us slowly emerged, and Mark explained that the walk would be silent, and that he wouldn’t go too fast, particularly as he has MS and walking sometimes hurts (he walked with a stick). He said we would go to a very high bridge and asked if any of us are afraid of heights? No. He said many people go there to commit suicide and unfortunately in the act they land on nesting birds. He said the walk might overrun by half an hour – was that ok with everyone? I said I have a train to catch and it might be a bit tight. He said he would shut up then, and we set off.

Through backstreets, park and woodland we left the town. To our right as we progressed, we often saw the long and high bridge looming, a massive road bridge over the river Orwell. Not beautiful, but awesome for the scale of such enormous concrete caterpillar construction. It seemed far off but we approached steadily, silently. Once, quite close, Mark led us to a viewing point, a clearing in the trees from which we saw the magnificent bridge towering ahead. It was almost scary. For a few minutes Mark looked at it intently and so did we, and only then it struck me. The clues had been there but it was seeing it stark in front of me and this pause in silent reflection that made a thudding realisation.

Before the walk Mark had explained a bit about his MS to us, that at a certain point in his spine the nerve endings ceased communicating with his left leg. He described keeping some sort of track of its development, and likened the shape of the river where we were walking along it, to the curvature of a spine. Places on the map – and on the land/river, had metaphorical significance to him. He said we would find our own meanings in the walk. I am very familiar with the deterioration that MS can produce, as my Mother, like Mark I believe, has the type known as secondary progressive. In her the advancement is so far however, that she now and for a long time, has only been slightly able to move her neck. She is otherwise paralysed.

It was a dark feeling that hit me, that this walk may represent a possible future solution for Mark. I have been there with Mum, but most acutely several years ago. It was the driver behind one of my first post-drama school performance projects – Assisting Sara – a forerunner to Girl in Suitcase that I continue with today. Assisted suicide was in the news at the time, and we knew one day it could be more pertinent to Mum, as already she wouldn’t be able alone. She had described the conditions under which she wanted to be taken to Zurich. Happily none of those have come to pass, and we are 7 years on from that time. She remains incredibly stable and robust for one so apparently physically fragile. She is inspiring to many who meet her, and she was so pleased to see the performance in which she was represented. She also regularly participates in my Spirited Bodies project, again an inspiration to all who witness her.

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After our pause, Mark led us up to the bridge in earnest and we traversed the less regularly walked pavement scattered with random clothing and knocked off bits of vehicle. Signs at regular intervals pointed to the Samaritans freephone. We halted a few times to regard the view.

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The morning mist across the expanding river in front, dappled with light from the gaps in the clouds; and a marshy shoreline band of patchy grass and shrubland.

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By the time we’d crossed, I was aware of the time and that it seemed unlikely we’d be back by the originally stated time of 10am. This slightly detracted from my enjoyment or ability to process the complex messages.

At the very last stretch I had to break the silence momentarily to announce my departure, and run back to my digs to grab my bag and bound for the station. It was an uncomfortable rushing if unsurefooted scramble across town and back, getting stickier and more agitated. I just made the platform in the right time, but I vowed never to leave a performance art festival in a hurry again! It takes time to debrief. A walk may never be just a walk. Going home ought not to feel so wrenching.

The emotions that juddered through me may have been triggered by Mark, but related strongly to Mum, to my old script, and every piece of art I have made with or about her. It reminded me that they may be the most significant thing I have ever done. Now in the wake of this fresh reopening, they did not feel so complete.

Mark had suggested we join him for tea after the walk, and I wished I could have for a period of debriefing. It took me quite a few hours after arriving back in London, after finishing my job, after drinking several glasses of wine and downloading to my partner, to come down. It was magical to take a few days out to be in the midst of so much performance art; it is a headspace for otherness. I think I need more regular encounters.

Here Mark speaks about the Strand walk.

With special thanks to Mark for sharing this walk, and to all at Spill for presenting the many inspirational pieces.

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