War in the North Sea

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image by frostilicus

I wrote a trio of plays that have never been performed – and they never will be, really.

I spent a good chunk of 2007-09, in between working on the first two Boho shows and starting the Crack Theatre Festival, sketching out the broad outlines of these works. The other week it all came back to me, as it does, from time to time, and I sat down to attempt to capture what it is, what it was that I made, for my own head’s sake if no-one else’s.

It’s a trilogy with a kind of sci-fi fantasy bent, but I never thought of it in those terms. There was a world that was building up in my imagination, and I was trying to capture it. If I’d been a novelist or a prose writer, it woulda come out in that form – but because I write for theatre and performance, that world came out through the medium of three one-act plays. But it would never have been possible to do these plays onstage, not really.

They came under the banner of ‘War in the North Sea’ and they were all set in a kind of Arctic ocean – an imagined version, anyway. I was picturing a mass of little rocky islands, ice shelfs, and huge floating icebergs.

In this setting, there’s a war with heaven. It’s because humans have come too close to the top of the world, or because heaven has dipped closer to the surface of earth. But either way, there are angels loose in the north sea and there are human armies opposing them.

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The city of heaven is made from wires that run straight like a massive cobweb stretching thousands of kilometres in all directions. Angels run along the wires, and fly sometimes from spot to spot. It’s not really clear what angels look like in this setting – only at the end of the trilogy do you see one for the first time, and I never quite got to the point of writing that sequence down. For me, the presence of heaven was the more interesting fact. Imagine looking up and seeing a wire, like a telephone wire, stretching a few metres above your head, running straight from one horizon to the other. And in the distance, another wire, at a different angle. And another. Off into the sky as far as you could see. Like a huge spiderweb, with angels running along the wires. That is heaven. It was sinister and abstract, and it meant something to me – not like a literal metaphor, but something that nagged at me.

Anyway, the first story in the trilogy wasn’t even set in the north sea. It was called Silent Movie Play, and it was about a documentary film-maker who’d come back from the front line. Not like a recent documentary film-maker with a little digital camera, this was like a film-maker in the early 1920s. Like Robert Flaherty going to film Nanook of the North in 1922. Taking kilometre after kilometre of film reels and huge heavy equipment.

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So it’s an editing studio, but it’s the early days of film, so think, early 20th century, huge iron machinery, big spools of nitrate film, scissors, glue. Anyway this documentary film-maker arrives with footage he’s shot from the frontlines, which is supposed to be turned into a propaganda film. There’s an editor there, and together they watch the footage that this guy has filmed, and they’re supposed to re-edit it and add subtitles.

Now what the guy has filmed is a little bit of a raft voyage through the iceberg strewn ocean near the frontline. This low-ranking soldier who works transporting things around the battlefields is taking a very high-ranking woman to a particular iceberg. She’s like, aristocracy, as well as being an extremely well-regarded doctor. The Empress’ pharmacist. And she’s being transported by this low-ranking nobody who paddles a raft made from sealskin.

Anyway, the pharmacist woman hits on the soldier transporter. Hard. She decides she wants him, and she basically uses her authority and power to intimidate him into an intimate liaison. And this is captured on film by the film-maker.

So what the film-maker and the editor are doing is playing bits of this footage, and then shuffling them around, editing them into a coherent story, and supplying subtitles for the dialogue that you can’t hear.

But because this was a play, or at least it was intended to be, this all happened onstage. On one side of the stage was the editing studio, the film-maker and the editor, having their discussions and debates. On the other side, the projected footage, played out live, of the pharmacist and the soldier in the tiny sealskin raft amid the icebergs.

Now the gist of this whole story is that the film-maker and the editor are fighting about what they’re making. The film-maker thinks that the footage should be shown as close as is possible to what he shot – to tell the story as it happened. But the editor thinks, no, this isn’t suitable as propaganda. Partly because it’s not a glorious war victory that’s been captured on film – but mostly because it’s a woman seducing a man, and that’s not acceptable to show in a cinema.

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So bit by bit, and against the film-maker’s objections, the editor slices up and reassembles the footage to tell a different story. Using the same sequence of images, he changes it from a tale in which the elite pharmacist imposes her will on a terrified man, into the tale of a noble soldier who wins the heart of a cowering woman through his masculine prowess. He cuts snippets of footage and moves them out of order to seem to indicate a different person taking the lead, and recontextualising other moments so they suggest a whole different narrative. And then finally, he inserts subtitles which puts words in the mouth of the two film subjects so that they adhere to his reinterpretation of events.

It’s a story I guess about how people reshape the world to adhere to their particular narrative, and how for so long humans have been conning other humans into thinking that there’s only one way to see the world.

But alongside that, there’s the simple fact that this is happening live – so when you see bits of footage sliced out of order and placed in different parts of the sequence, you’re watching the pair of actors on the other side of the stage have to somehow snap from one motion to another, to physically enact these jarring jump cuts. And to speak the new lines that are being forcibly inserted into their mouths.

It was an incredibly specific and challenging format for any kind of live performance. I actually did some development with this idea, with Max Barker directing and Hanna Cormick and Lloyd Allison-Young performing. It was amazing to see, it made me think this idea could genuinely work.

But maybe that idea, that staging concept, should have been its own thing. Live actors portraying a snippet of film that’s re-edited and the story reconfigured so that it has a different meaning and message. That’s a complex thing in itself. But I was lost in this universe at that time, this whole setting of the war in the north sea. I couldn’t let it go.

Like I said, one of the big challenges with this setting was that I was exploring it through the medium of performance rather than, say, a spec-fic novel. But I mean, shifting mediums to prose wouldn’t necessarily have brought the world out in any clearer way. Shaping it as performance, as a series of one-act plays, didn’t make it easy to express some aspects of the world, but it forced me to open up different channels.

How do you tell a world in a live setting?

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The second play in the trilogy was called This Mixtape Must Reach You, and it took a different tack. This story took place a little before the events captured by the film-maker in the Silent Movie Play story. The low-ranking soldier, whose name is Annon, has just been summoned to his commander’s tent for a special mission.

The army is camped out on an ice shelf, and we see Annon make his way slowly through the camp, from the outskirts where his tent is pitched, through to the commander’s HQ at the heart of the army. And on the way, he is speaking into a little dictaphone, recording an audio letter for his young son at home, assembling a mixtape.

The format of this performance was a solo show, a narrated letter, with the songs in the mixtape peppered throughout. Stars of the Lid, the Stooges, the Cinematic Orchestra, Rasputin’s Stash…

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Anyway, through Annon’s introductions to the songs, and his encounters with other soldiers on the way to the commander’s tent, we get a picture of Annon, his history and his life. He’s a miserable specimen, a low-ranking loner, despised and abused by the other soldiers, coerced into acts he doesn’t want to do, forced to stay on the perimeter of the camp. And we learn about his history – his life in a small seaside village in the tropics, his home in a small hut by the shore.

We learn more about the history of the war, how people have been recruited without really knowing what they’re fighting for or why, how the disparate nature of human society means that information is so diffuse and unclear. And how the army in the north sea has coalesced into its own kind of social organisation, its own informal economy where food and medicine are traded between soldiers in a grey market.

And lastly, we learn about Annon’s relationship with his son, who it seems is likely to be an adopted son… maybe? The more Annon addresses him, the less clear it becomes, the harder it is to have a fixed sense of their relationship. And I don’t know exactly, because it’s nine years since I wrote it, but I think that was part of the point.

Anyway, Annon’s journey comes to an end when he reaches the commander’s tent and is given his mission; he must transport the Empress’ pharmacist on his raft to a remote iceberg outpost, where the human soldiers have stopped reporting from. And they’ll be filmed en route by a documentary maker who is making a propaganda film about the war.

So the second play ends where the first begins – and we see Annon and the pharmacist (whose name is The Sun, of course) depart on the raft.

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And then, finally, the third play. This one didn’t have a name, or at least, I can’t find one for it. And this was a solo play too, but a very different kind to the last one. This play takes place on the iceberg outpost that Annon and The Sun are sailing to, the outpost of human soldiers that has gone mysteriously quiet.

What has happened is this: there were 90 or so soldiers on the iceberg, camping on the tiny portion of ice that sits above the waterline. There to keep guard on a thread of the heavenly city that runs dangerously close to the sea. But they were attacked, by an angel or a group of angels, who tipped the iceberg over and consequently managed to drown most of the soldiers in the sea.

Only two soldiers survived: Catch, who was wounded in the attack and who is now gradually slipping away, and Amicitia, who was diving underwater in a drysuit when the angels attacked and managed to avoid the worst of the disaster.

The only person that the audience see is Amicitia, and what they are watching in this performance is Amicitia try to do everything at once. She is trying to tend to Catch’s wounds, she is trying to find a way to keep herself warm, she is trying to guard against the returning angels, she is trying to signal for help, she is trying to build traps and defences against her foes, she is recording her memoirs in case help doesn’t come in time, she is chattering to herself in order to keep her spirits up, she is trying to do everything, all at once.

The hook for this play, really, is that Amicitia is splitting her focus between a million high priority tasks, and gradually, each one is getting on top of her. The angels are getting closer, Catch is getting weaker, help is nowhere in sight, her spirits are flagging, but she just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing and will not give in.

This is where we encounter angels for the first time, when they come to finish off Amicitia and Catch. And we learn more about the war, too – for example, that all the soldiers on the iceberg were tied together with tiny black threads, so the whole network of humans, linked together, went underwater all at once – Catch and Amicitia had to sever their connections in order to avoid being drowned.

This play ends with the arrival of Annon and The Sun on the raft, to administer medicine and save those that can be saved – although The Sun’s intentions are far murkier, and it’s not at all clear that Amicitia is going to be saved, or that Annon will be allowed to return to the camp when the job is done.

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How it ends, I don’t know – I only have notes, and if I went to finish writing it now I’d have to find a completely new ending. But in part, at least one character ends up fleeing into the city of heaven, running along the wires up into the atmosphere.

So, I don’t know quite what to do with all of this. I have hundreds – literally hundreds – of pages of notes, and scraps of dialogue, pieces of scene… but of course, this isn’t a work that anyone would ever produce. I mean, I believe that there’s some kind of audience for this stuff, but really, who produces work like this? Why should they? It doesn’t tick any box for how a work of live performance should be.

How do I reconcile that awareness with the fact that I sunk probably two years of reflection and detailed scribbling into it? Other people were studying at university, earning money, engaging with the world around them. I got lost in this – still do, always do. Sometimes when I’m dancing (and it was during a gig in Stockholm last month, 2am on the dancefloor, that I decided to sketch out this summary) I start to recall the world, and I get lost in it, tracing out the paths, contemplating all the ways that story went, all the characters, the threads in that odd tapestry.

The last fragment of text in my notes is a line of dialogue, said by an angel to Annon. I don’t know how this encounter comes about, there’s nothing written around it – but the angel says:

Four times to build the city in your mind
Four times and then it’s indestructible

That’s all. That’s all I have.