I have hesitated – probably unforgivable for a reviewer – to comment on the multimedia presentation that I witnessed in Norwich Arts Centre on Thursday evening.
The show promised interest, diversity and skill – all off which were present in good measure. But it also left me angry, frustrated and disappointed.
The premise of this show is good, taking a complex and grisly bit of our history, well researched, and presenting it with a mixture of impressive film visuals, personal narration and fine musical performance. Like the curate’s egg, many of the parts were good. The assembly of all-analogue film clips from James Holcombe is impressive, and worth watching and enjoying. The introduction from ghoulish historian Neil Storey was a delight, telling us more about the business of hanging than any decent person would wish to know. The musicians, the Dead Rat Orchestra and the delightful Lisa Knapp, deserve more attention and are inspiringly good.
But the assembly of these excellent parts seems to lack any coherent overall direction and led to a whole which left me resentful and angry. This show, with proper direction and editing, could be magnificent. James Holcombe has assembled an impressive compendium of film components about the subject of Tyburn gallows, its location, characters and artefacts. There is more than enough content for a rewarding hour long documentary.
This show lasted for over two hours, with an uncomfortable transition into a Q&A at the end which most of the audience opted out of. I did not stay for the Q&A, having spent too long with my hands protecting ears and eyes against further annoyance. I had too much ambient film clip noise, and far too much repeated endless flickering bright light obscuring almost completely the chance to see some quite interesting archive film. The film-maker warned us of the flickering before the start, which begs the question ‘why do it?’ For those of us who wish to preserve our eyesight for as long as possible in the face of a bright and very visual world this style of presentation is just a complete turn off. At one point I turned to see who was still watching this flickering confusion. Nobody. All eyes closed.
It would have been rather good to see the musicians as they played. The music composed and reborn for this work is ethereal and charming, and I would like to have been able to watch the musicians as they reacted to the unfolding story from the screen. Their performance is integral to this production and deserves more exposure.
I can even accept and understand the filmmaker’s method of using multiple traditional film projections overlapping and interacting on a single screen. But projected film is already a flickering medium, and to overlay the interesting images with film of endless black/white flashing abstract nothingness just makes the whole thing unwatchable. There are some interesting overlays, such as a combination of current Tyburn resident and ex-PM Tony with some rather scaly degraded film. Scaly Tony. Apt. Fifteen seconds of that would be good, two minutes is too much.
This is possibly the first film production that I have seen featuring Blair, a gallows, a preserved prick and a funfair but I am sure there will be more. The silhouette of a 21st Century mechanical funfair was a visual theme throughout, although I remain mystified about its relevance.
There is captioning on the screen which is essential to understand the narrative of the Tyburn story, and quite often it was in readable focus. I may have missed some when the flickering and flashing became interminable though.
Overall, inspite of the gripes above, I am glad that I saw this show. It has the potential to be very good indeed, but needs the severe voice of a director to make it so. I know more about the history of Tyburn than I ever did before, and have discovered musicians, a filmmaker and a presenter all of whom I will seek out in future with eager anticipation. But much more flashing light torment and I will just put a brick through the screen.
© Julian Swainson 2017