at The Shed, Wednesday 26th June 2013
“But if you believe in money, then you believe in God”
Four microphones. Dozens of water bottles. And some sand.
From a selection of very basic props, Mission Drift tells a love story which covers a period of four-hundred years, of desire for both the material and the abstract, capturing a specific moment in time and offering a searing critique of Modern American Capitalism. It is, in short, extraordinary.
First, a bit of background. I vaguely remember hearing about the show when it was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read anything about it at the time. Then, as its run at the NT Shed was announced, I resigned myself to the fact I probably wouldn’t see it seeing as it was on during my last month at university and I didn’t want to buy a ticket when I may not have been able to make it.
Then the reviews came out.
Even then, though, I didn’t buy a ticket because my schedule was tight and I didn’t want to miss any celebratory events in the final few weeks of term. Then, however, Catherine Love told me pretty frankly that I needed to find myself a ticket if I possibly could. I then watched The TEAM Makes a Play on The Stage website, and throughout its ninety minute running time became more panicked that I would miss it.
So I put out a plea on Twitter.
And, thankfully, Catherine came to my rescue and managed to wangle me a house seat (which I paid for, I might add) for one of its final performances.
So my expectations were pretty high to say the least. And I’d also be watching the show after I’d seen an edited representation of its process.
And then I didn’t get round to writing about it until now, almost two weeks later, as I was busy saying my farewells to university and enjoying some time on holiday.
Yet every day since seeing Mission Drift, the show has fought its way to the front of my consciousness, making me giddy with excitement as images which I didn’t realise I remembered flash through my mind and the earth-shattering genre-defying music has been on repeat both in my head and on my MP3 player. I’ve also found it nigh-on impossible to describe Mission Drift to friends. I keep trying to explain what the show is, how it works and the effect it had on me, but have struggled to articulate my thoughts. Which I imagine is fairly obvious from this post already.
Now for the actual review-y bit.
Mission Drift is, at its heart, a love story. Between its protagonists Catalina and Joris, between Miss Atomic and her audience, and between America and money. And love is key, for it suggests not just desire but a passionate, flaming need.
Catalina and Joris (Libby King and Brian Hastert) are a young couple in love from the Netherlands who slowly make their way Westwards across America over a period of hundreds of years, somehow managing to journey through time as well as space, never contemplating the results of their quest for expansion and taking on a plethora of identities along the way. At the same time, we watch as two symbols of Americana – the cocktail waitress (Amber Gray) and the cowboy (Ian Lassiter) – struggle to survive during the Great Repression. The past has an impact on the stories and mythologies of the present, and vice versa.
Throughout, Heather Christian’s Miss Atomic guides us across this ragged and arid wasteland of shattered dreams, acting as both narrator and respite. Her songs thunder through the small space shaking its wooden frame and our fleshy bodies. Christian’s voice is that most rare of beasts, heading to inexplicable places and yet wholly in control. Even if you haven’t seen the show, the soundtrack is worth a listen.
And what’s the result of this excess? Las Vegas. Both pantheon to and purgatory of American capitalism. As the sparkly curtains fall and the neon tubes glow at the beginning of the second half, we see that this is what comes after the dry desert is subsumed by consumerism. The wood which is so rhythmically and endlessly chopped in the past has been used to build a shrine to cash.
And, terrifyingly, the only option after this is a nuclear one. Just as the humble beginnings of the American West have ballooned into something uncontrollable, so too does the split atom mushroom into a deadly cloud.
But for all its angry, frenzied, sprawling insight into the workings of American capitalism, the reason for Mission Drift‘s success lies in its presentation, which under Rachel Chavkin’s direction follows the same ethos as that thing which it critiques, allowing the smallest of ideas to expand into something massive. The sheer volume of visual and aural images is dizzying, even though what is actually present is beautifully simple; it is everything Bruce Norris’ The Low Road tried and failed to be.
At the back, a makeshift stage, home to Miss Atomic and her band and drawing focus when we move a little away from theatre and into the realm of gig. To the right, a door frame with sliding blinds. And at the front, four deck chairs. That’s basically it.
The first thing which strikes me about this set-up is its similarity to Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, another American play with similar themes produced by the National last year. Both these productions feature fiddly deckchairs, annoying French windows and artificial green floors standing in for luscious lawns, suggesting that the public appearance of American homes has a particularly distinct identity which can be summed up by a few select objects.
But here things are even more powerful than in D’Amour’s play because of the tenacity with which The TEAM (standing for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) make meaning through images. At one point, King walks on the spot centre stage as shifting lights around her connote a long journey, her feet dragging relentlessly against the floor as sand is poured around this static-yet-moving being. At another, three microphone cables are whipped in unison, as we get a real-life, 3D representation of the rises and falls of the stock markets which here look eerily like a slowing heart-rate.
The simplicity of Nick Vaughan’s set design also gives The TEAM license to push things further than they would in a more convoluted setting, as their bodies and everyday objects act as metaphors for something far larger. And though the comparison is perhaps invalid due to this piece’s première being earlier than Three Kingdoms, there were a good few instances when I was reminded of the sheer dazzling, frightening scope of the visual in Nübling’s production, not least the moment captured on the front cover of the playtext which looks startlingly like an American version of the cover of Stephens’ play.
And throughout, beer is drunk in every available moment, as the intoxication the characters feel at the prospect of wealth is mirrored by a genuine inebriation which leads to bad decisions and regrettable mistakes. The bottled water is never consumed.
And here lies the crux of Mission Drift’s argument, which represents a world where the simple, more refreshing option is always shunned in favour of the excessive scarcities which push humanity to scary territories. And yet it’s undeniable that this boundary-pushing is exciting, as we find ourselves caught up in the wonder and sexiness of Too Much. When this reaction is so much more punchy and visceral than when we are presented with Just Enough, is it then any wonder that we keep finding ourselves having to question those very structures time and time again?