In London, in Greenwich, inside the Hangar, inside the Mill, Stefano and Paul are rehearsing. The Mill is a giant hanging cylinder: a central barrel—wood-slatted—open at both ends to laddered circular wheels (metal) and suspended from Vs of very thin steel cable. It’s not exactly like anything, but spreads across a wide network of associations: a nautical, aerial war contraption; a turbine; a factory engine. When Stefano sets the barrel turning, climbing up the slope of the inside wall, it isn’t long before the Mill takes control: some minimum requirement of force is met and the rocking of the barrel accelerates fiercely into complete revolutions, Stefano bracing himself against the ceiling so that as he inverts he’s in a handstand, Paul clinging to the bars of the outer wheel. Neither of them look entirely comfortable; there’s some restrained swearing that might be in character.
The other three members of the cast, the core members of Ockham’s Razor, Alex, Charlotte and Tina, are sitting (two on chairs, one on a giant wooden reel) and calling advice. Toby Sedgwick, their director, is standing. Their composer and sound artist for the piece is sitting where I am, at the far wall, and behind a spread of A3 paper sheets, laid on the floor and roughly storyboarded, headed up Conflict 1, Conflict 2, Conflict 3, etc. Toward the corner, up on the wall, there are a few dozen notepad-size drawings of stickmen in various similar configurations—like a total, distributed view of a flick book you might have drawn in the corners of your school mathbook. It’s difficult to say what they’d animate if there were a right sequence, but they show ropes on pulleys, and looking up to the warehouse roof there is a line of pulleys with a rope running over them, cinched up now and not in use as Stefano and Paul switch to another scene where they’re in a dead hang at the bottom of the outer ladder-wheel. One either side, they climb up together—first doing it the trapeze way, inverting and hanging from the knees, but this is figured too technical and under direction from the others they do it the harder way: climbing hand over hand and kicking their legs. Alex makes an appreciative noise: ‘It’s beautifully messy.’
With ten minutes of rehearsal left the aerialists dismount, disembark—egress—and soundman Derek mics the Mill and sets it spinning. It spins very freely, for a long time, with a life of its own. It’s quieter than you might think. An ambient wash of stress-creaks, but then within that a small ticking sound, a little metronomic—sort of a measuring sound, like something is being counted or marked.
* * *
I might as well confess up front that I interviewed seven people for nearly an hour and forgot to ask them what their show was about. Maybe it doesn’t matter? In past productions Ockham’s Razor’s narratives seem to have emerged from a sort of Oulipian circus of restriction—they make custom pieces of equipment, similar in some ways to existing apparatus but different enough that they have to adapt to it, develop a language, and pull together a narrative out of the mechanics of their aerial environment. Particularly in the case of the two longest pieces from their '07 Mimefest trilogy, Arc and Every Action, the equipment mediates the relationships between the performers—in Arc it’s a suspended raft, a scaffold grid that loses its stability and seesaws back and forth around a central pivot, the castaway characters climbing over and through the grid to find the balance point; in Every Action it’s a rope running up, over two pulleys, and down again some distance away so that before anyone can climb at one end, the other needs a human-weight.
The Mill, though, is much more complex than previous apparatuses, and harder to modify. When I ask how it was planned pre-construction, expecting maybe mathematics and CAD drawings, Tina Koch explains how she and Alex Harvey and Charlotte Mooney ‘rented a flat in Brighton then laid down on the floor and measured the span of everybody—the height between the knees and feet so we could brace it—and then we took an average between Alex, Charlotte and me’. They had only a rough idea of how they might use the finished machine. Charlotte: ‘We didn’t really know yet what we could do on it technically—it was more the kind of idea of it. Appealing visually and what it would sort of signify and then we’ll build it and see what technically you can do on it. We thought it would be a lot more terrifying and impossible to do things on—but actually it’s hard and it’s tricky and it’s difficult but it is conquerable—there are things you can do on it. […] The idea behind it was that we—originally we had the idea to make something that’s powered by the physical action of someone moving, and so we’d gone down the machine root and had built all these very complicated systems of someone pulling on this and that pulling the lever and that affecting that and then a ball rolling down and being thrown…. But it would take four hours to set up, then it would do what it was made to do and that would be it. With the wheel you can have the same concept of human movement powering something but because its cyclical you get the idea without it having this sort of stop point.’
The Mill's large-scale is testament perhaps to the longer development period afforded by the company's growing success and recent appointment as one of ACE’s regularly funded organisations, but also a necessary evolution in order to produce their first solo full-length show (Hang On was in collaboration with Theatre-Rites). Their director for the piece, Toby Sedgwick: ‘The more things are dependent on it or revolve around the system—that gives the chance, gives the possibilities for conflict, which is what then creates the theatrical element. What we’ve done a lot of is experimenting on what is possible—what’s safe on the wheel, on the ropes, on everything, on all the items of equipment we wanted to use. So we worked out many options of things to do and now we’re trying to put these together in a theatrical situation. Out of that will come the story, the theatrical arc of the piece.’ Having trained at L'École Jacques Lecoq, run Moving Picture Mime Show, worked and performed with Complicite, and fallen into a career in movement direction that most recently included work on the National’s War Horse,1 this is Toby’s first time working with Ockham’s Razor. It’s also his first experience working with a circus company, though he says that after seeing them perform he realised ‘that they’re much more into sort of character situations—situations which are theatrical’, and Alex explains that, even though the company is often classified as circus, they chose right from the beginning not to use traditional equipment because they ‘didn’t want the expectations’. Still, they're not unhappy that their work is called circus. Charlotte: ‘What’s happening at the moment in the circus world is there’s a kind of schism. There’s like traditional circus and then circus that’s doing something arty and theatrical. And obviously we’re more interested in pushing the theatre of it and not so interested in the traditional side, but we all feel, it’s fair to say, that the traditional side is treated as a poorer cousin, a bit, and denigrated, and we feel uncomfortable about that—it’s a valid thing; a different thing, but a valid thing. It’s where we’ve come from.’
The company still train traditional disciplines, for fun and for conditioning, but also as the skills are transferable to their aerial mills and rafts and pulleyed ropes. The company have taken on two more circus artists, Stefano Di Renzo and Paul Evans, to broaden their skills base—and because, as Alex puts it, they were ‘bored of doing girly shows’. ‘Poor Alex,’ agrees Tina. ‘He’s always the one pulling and lifting and we wanted some other big boys… but then there weren’t really any.’ She gestures toward the wispy, semi-substantial figures of their two extra cast members: ‘So we got Stefano and Paul.’ Alex: ‘It’s also that weight is a very difficult thing to get hold of—to put weight somewhere. External weight is very difficult to get, so if you have sandbags or whatever you have to have massive sandbags to get the weight that a person can give.’ So they’re sandbags essentially? ‘No! No. We wanted sandbags and we got Stefano and Paul.’
Aside from being animate weights, Stefano is a juggler and slackwire-walker, and Paul, as well as being an aerialist, is trained as a gymnast and acrobat (he lays claim to both2). Also working on the show are Rufus Norris—whose role is variously described as an ‘outside eye’, a ‘narrative junkie’, and a ‘narrative supervisor’: someone to come to the material fresh and, according to Alex, to ‘bring some much needed darkness’ to the company—and then Derek Nisbet is working on the sound design. Derek worked with Ockham’s Razor before on Arc, and sees composition for aerial theatre as different from music for ground-based dance: the rhythms of aerial movement are dictated more by the equipment and technique. ‘For stuff up in the air it’s almost like that’s what it’s suspended in.’
Seven people then in the rehearsal space, but the biggest presence is the Mill itself. When I suggest that it has some of the same dark energy and character of Wheel of Death,3 everyone seems to feel it’s got a life of its own. Alex: ‘It’s just a soundtrack. It’s just a whole, entire readymade workshop soundtrack; it sounds like you’re in a factory.’ Tina: ‘It’s true it has its own life. Because if you spin it and get off it it just keeps going, for ages. And it ticks.’ Charlotte: ‘It’s because you’re not in control of it. Which we’ve found with this—which is great because you can play with that, the fact that it can become so unhinged and out of control and can sweep you up in it. Obviously that’s rich in metaphor and also really exciting but—but….’
1 AND BUT: FOOTNOTE ASIDE CONCERNING THE SPIRE-LIKE PEAK OF TOBY SEDGWICK’S CAREER IN MOVEMENT
TOBY: … and I did some work on 28 Days Later with Danny Boyle. I was in it as well.
CHARLOTTE: Were you!? No. Who were you?
T: I’m the infected priest. No, Yeah. I’m the first—the one who—the infected priest right at the beginning—
ALEX: Oh! In the church.
C [agitated]: Oh yeah. Yeah.
A: One of the first zombies you see, isn’t it.
T: Yeah, that’s why he wanted me. He wanted someone who could move you know because I—
C: Toby, you’ve finally made me starry eyed.
T: —basically he wanted someone who knew a lot about movement so that we got something really frightening.
T: Also we didn’t know how we were going to shoot it. He didn’t know whether he was going to shoot it on film or on video—on super—on that new format, which just means all the physical things... he wanted to be able to wipe the camera very fast and you can’t do that with film.
C: The zombies—I know they’re not zombies, but basically they’re zombies—did he already know that they were going to run, that they were gong to be fast zombies? Because that was like completely revolutionary in the zombie world and then got totally nicked by everyone. Now zombies can run, but they couldn’t before 28 Days Later.
T: That was my idea: to have them completely different, so all their movement was very erratic. Danny and I gave a workshop to all the actors who were going to be in it—we did this workshop and we did all this stuff, the nine levels of fear and all the levels of tension and all of that. So that they could get up to a state where the movement became very frightening because it’s totally erratic, not stable at all.
C: Toby, you’re seminal in the zombie genre. Although they’re not zombies. But basically they are.
2 Making him a Gymnastobat.
3 In circus it most resembles Wheel of Death, but my literary x and y coordinates for the Wheel would be the machine in Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony' and the murkily imagined Cockchafer from Gould’s Book of Fish. Both are the wreck of men.