By Aisling Lally
According to the show’s description, Ali Matthews (the solo performer and creator of The Ballad of Isosceles) “weaves participatory experiences out of text, song and scenographic environment that are designed to play with certain ‘difficult affects including intimacy, distance, desire and alienation”. Delivering a new myth explaining the origins of the forgotten tenth muse Envy, Matthews does just that in a short 30-minute piece.
She performs original songs from a distance, under an eerie, bold blue spotlight (think Ursula in The Little Mermaid, that’s the vibe that was given off), and delivers her monologue up close and personal with two lucky audience members. When I say up close and personal, I mean really up close and personal. We’re talking sniffing a their cheek, unwavering eye contact, and mustering spit a few centimetres from their face levels of up close and personal. It was this immersive quality that was one of the most striking, engaging and unique things about the performance.
Marty Langthorne’s lighting design was simple but effective, and integral to the success of the performance. A particular strength of the lighting design was the use of spotlights: the blue spot used for the songs and the spotlights on audience members for the monologue. The audience was just as on show, just as vulnerable, as the performer.
For me, the memorability of the piece was not so much in the text (although the mythmaking did pose some interesting questions, and contained some poignant images), but in the way the audience was treated and involved.
The Ballad of Isosceles is a prime example of a selfless piece of theatre, constructed with the audience in mind: not focused on an outburst of ‘look at me, the artist, and marvel at how much I’m feeling, look at the emotional journey I’m on!’. Instead, the piece yelled: ‘look at you, the audience, and look at how you’re feeling, look at the emotional journey you’re on!’. I say this because we were made to physically squirm in our seats at times, and listen intently at others. For example, to demonstrate a character’s spit in the story she was narrating, Matthews audibly mustered up spit into a microphone- I felt sick.
Ultimately, Matthews spits in the face of today’s cultural norm of passive audiences in theatre. By this, I mean the ‘sit back and enjoy the show with a bag of popcorn’. (You could hear a pin drop in today’s intimate performance, so much so that I was too scared to keep my gum in my mouth for fear of making noise, and I swallowed it.) This seemed particularly apt for the current debate surrounding whether audience members should be allowed to eat and drink during performances- are we moving away from expecting a separate and somewhat inactive audience?
Yet at other times, Matthews soothes her audience with soulful melodies. It seemed fitting that she wore a blue dress, blue eyeliner, under a blue spotlight when singing, not only to add to the eeriness of the piece, but also to complement the bluesy quality of her singing. Matthews’ vocal ability should certainly be pointed out; she is an excellent singer. Her range, fluctuating dynamics, and jazzy, rich vibrato are genuinely mesmerizing. For the audience, it almost felt like you were watching two different shows: flicking between a vintage jazz concert when Matthews sang at the back of the space, to an intimidating and immersive monologue when she spoke out front.
Overall, though I think the piece could benefit from some more light-hearted moments in the midst of its unnerving haze, it was nonetheless impressive and refreshing in its originality, immersive qualities and its lack of ego.
The Ballad of Isosceles was performed at the John Cooper Studio, York, on Saturday, February 23, 2019 12:00pm-5:00pm as part of SLAP Festival 2019: York’s pay-what-you-can contemporary performance festival.