Academic journal article About Performance

Staging De Quincey: Soundscape and Literary Language in Tess De Quincey's Ghost Quarters

Academic journal article About Performance

Staging De Quincey: Soundscape and Literary Language in Tess De Quincey's Ghost Quarters

Article excerpt

A door opens partially, and a hand appears, then a face, blurred in the half-light. The advancing figure makes its entrance with a slow fluidity that suggests ectoplasm, and in fact this is not a physical entity. It hovers in space for a few seconds, semitransparent, before dematerialising, along with the traces of the portal through which it just passed. Then, as the light grows and the eye discovers more of the surrounding space, another figure is revealed, with the same aura of pale hair surrounding the upturned face-but this is a gravity-bound presence, and as it rises from the floor, its movements are a confusion of impulses. It is quite literally finding its feet.

Its voice is scattered in all directions, coming across as a semi-audible hubbub of mismatched speech patterns, but as the figure gains balance and orientation, some fragments of narrative emerge. They are about setting out on a journey, inhaling mountain air, associating with the eternal motion of winds and rivers. Green grasses float in projected images around the now rapidly moving figure. It becomes evident that the airs are a little too intoxicating. There is a sense that the person in the midst of all this is hyperventilating as the words "fiery rapture" are repeated over and over. The scene darkens. Exhilaration converts to anxiety on the same panting rhythms of breath, and the voice starts to rehearse complaints about severe weather and nights out on the exposed hillside.

Now we are entering another kind of environment: the built environment of nineteenth-century London, where the wanderer takes refuge in a large vacant house-vacant, that is, except for an abandoned child, and the ghosts who are permanent residents. The exterior of the house is conjured into the space, its windows floating as transparent shapes, at odd angles.

The opening sequence of Ghost Quarters, a solo performance work drawn from the writings of the early-nineteenth-century essayist Thomas De Quincey, is an exploration of the spatial uncanny. De Quincey ran away from school at the age of sixteen, and lived rough in the Welsh hills for several months before "throwing himself upon London" in a state of complete destitution. Since opium was cheaper than food, and a means of calming the hunger pangs, this period of his life also led De Quincey to addiction, and a hallucinatory fascination with architecture as wilderness. The experience left with him an estranged relationship to domestic space. In his writings, perceptions of interior and exterior are confused, walls are never stable, and any doorway is an invitation to murderous intruders.

Here we found common ground between the work of De Quincey, the nineteenthcentury literary gentlemen, and that of his descendant Tess de Quincey, a contemporary performer whose formative training is in the Japanese practice of Body Weather. In Body Weather, as the term implies, biological life is conceived of as an environment in a state of elemental flux that reflects the changing weathers of the world at large. A continuing dialogue between microcosm and macrocosm, with a focus on the evolving role of consciousness in unstable conditions, is central to the forms of intelligence cultivated by the English Romantic Movement. Thomas De Quincey's cultural milieu is not such strange terrain, then, even for someone proposing to interpret it through the lenses of an Asian discipline, and the nonverbal art form of Body Weather.1

Ghost Quarters was performed in May 2009 at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia. This massive industrial setting, with towering brick walls that once enclosed a railway workshop whose iron tracks are still embedded in the concrete floors, presented first and foremost a challenge of scale. De Quincey's fascination with Piranesi (whose drawings he did not see, but knew of through Coleridge's description) was an obvious reference point, and a Piranesi-like mise-en-abyme of industrial structures was projected onto gauze screens hung through the centre of the performance arena. …

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