Based around the music of Arvo Pärt, and how it has become important for those suffering with a terminal illness, Tabula Rasa centres around a woman’s loss of her friend, Peter, who died of cancer.
This production is masterfully shaped to create a world of opposites: black and white, living and dying, words and music. It is a collaboration of ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Scottish Ensemble’, and embodies, as Pärt describes it, ‘the two “voices” of music’. It uses Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ as a vehicle to conjure a variety of responses from the audience: both personal and empathetic towards the characters, and to force them to explore the role of music spiritually and physically for those about to die.
The set is constructed of two pianos, a few chairs and a bass cello laying on its side lit by a warm orange glow – all together, there is the sense that something significant has happened. As an audience, we are held in anticipation as we are forced to recognise not exactly a tone of sympathy, but rather of confrontation, all focusing in on the question: are we really ourselves when we are dying?
The play is narrated by Pauline Goldsmith’s character, Peter’s friend, an unnamed figure who speaks directly to the audience, and the audience alone. This technique allows for the plot and the music to be a personal rather than objective experience for the audience. She portrays the character in a sorrowful yet endearing light using comedy in parts, and a key physical characteristic of outstretching her hands to the audience, making us more included in her discussion. Her passive approach allows her words to narrate the minimalist, yet effective use of physical theatre, separated by a scrim, which opens at various points to reveal snapshots of Peter’s life while battling with cancer.
What made this production unique was the use of music. Musicians played on stage in between Goldsmith speaking, creating both a harmony and discourse. One particularly striking scene was when she had given Peter a book on snow, which was read to him in his “dark blinded” hospital room. Snow begins to fall, both lightly and heavily, while Pärt’s music is played, creating a chilling yet comforting scene, as the audience begins to understand the beauty, necessity and purity of this music for such a patient. Here, the concept of opposites is accomplished both physically through the story, and emotionally through the music, though at other times it is not as powerful.
The final tableau of a white screen at the end, where nothing but music is seen, forces the audience into the patient’s view, looking out at death with the music as a guide. This creates a very harrowing, goose-bump – inducing experience for the audience, and causing this challenging performance to leave the audience both stricken and impressed.
Photo Credit: Hugh Carswell