When you finish watching Ira Brand’s show, you will be 45 minutes closer to death. This is neither a warning nor a criticism; it’s simply a fact. A Cure for Ageing, despite its title’s hint towards the hopeful myth of eternal youth, is all about how much time we have left. Confronting the passing of time and the creeping age that eventually defeats us all, the tone of Brand’s piece is fearfully questioning, staring head on at the encroaching reality of ageing at the same time as flinching away from it. The problem with thinking too deeply about death and the inexorable ticking down of time, as Brand points out, is that it’s hard to think of anything valuable to do with those disappearing seconds, minutes and hours.
The performance, which remains in development, explores a number of ways of physically representing this passing of time, strikingly visualising the advance of age. Brand inhales cigarette smoke from a balloon – the bright “60” emblazoned on its surface pointing to our habit of marking the onward march of time in numbers – while telling us that this act is calculated to rob roughly 11 minutes from her life expectancy. She dances, flinging her body around the performance space in an energetic display of youthful physical ability, before breathlessly recounting the deterioration of age. Simple, delicate hand movements suggest first the dexterity of Brand as a performer in her twenties and then the distraction and physical failings of the elderly individuals whose voices she adopts. The body – extraordinary, fragile, limited – is constantly foregrounded.
Perhaps the most effective of Brand’s techniques, however, is the simplest and boldest. In a brave but completely justified choice, the show opens with two minutes of next to nothing. Brand reads out a number – 45 – before returning to silence. Projected on the back wall of The Yard, a pulsing, hypnotic image of a jellyfish. After a while, another number: 44. This continues until reaching 43, at which point Brand’s game becomes clear and we have lost two minutes of our time together in this space. It is in this way that we feel the seconds slipping past, gradually becoming conscious of the passage of time with little to distract us from it. It has something of that childish exercise of predicting (inevitably incorrectly) the passing of a minute, highlighting the subjectivity of time with deceptive simplicity.
It is perhaps in this subjectivity and fluidity of time that the subject matter’s more intriguing unexplored avenues lie. As John Berger observes in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, modern understandings of linear time have removed the belief in a timeless force that resists the unstoppable turning of time, tightening the unity between time and death – “Time has become Death triumphant over all”. But if we experience the passing of time at different and variable rates, this unity can perhaps be eroded a little, offering not triumph over death or ageing but a new way of understanding their approach. There is something of this in Brand’s conversation with her grandmother, who says that she does not feel that she is an old woman until she looks in the mirror.
As highlighted by the use of her grandmother, the show that Brand is crafting is unapologetically personal and admittedly non-scientific. In order to gather the necessary experience of ageing, Brand spoke to a number of participants and recorded their voices for the performance, but she is transparent about the fallibility of this research. In a lightly mocking disclaimer, she tells us that this was not a representative study. She has not achieved a comprehensive cross-section of society and she did not ask every participant the same questions. In the other strand of the performance, meanwhile, Brand reads out from a series of letters poignantly tracing her grandfather’s gradual deterioration.
Oddly, though, the effect of this autobiographical and highly subjective frame is to contain a picture that feels almost universal. It is particular, certainly, but it grapples with a destiny that we all face sooner or later. The specifics will of course vary hugely, yet in a sense it doesn’t matter that Brand’s cross-section of participants don’t span all races and nationalities or that she failed to ask them about their class or sexuality. Regardless of those distinctions, we are all susceptible to ageing and death, a fact that Brand’s deliberately slapdash research illustrates. There is also something about the use of one particular voice that focuses the whirlpool of experience that the piece attempts to deal with. Spoken by Brand, these statements are graspable, while participants’ often distressing descriptions of ageing take on a particularly haunting quality from the mouth of someone young. This is the future that we all face.
If death is one uniting certainty of human existence, then love is another. Foxy and Husk’s latest show, Fox Solo, is primarily concerned with the aftermath of love, extending the gentle melancholy of A Cure for Ageing into the second half of the evening. Foxy enters the stage of The Yard alone, bearing a tray carrying a nodding dog toy and a cluster of shot glasses filled with milk. Involving the audience in a communal act of drinking, she then goes on to perform a series of statements about love, lip-synching to a voiceover of an older woman’s words in between taking more gulps of milk from a wine glass. At intervals, we are treated to songs – again mimed.
There’s a lot of distancing at play here. This is achieved firstly through Foxy’s playful performance persona, which nods to our strange tendency to anthropomorphise by presenting us with the uniquely uncanny figure of the half-human, half-animal. Through this lens, normal patterns of behaviour immediately take on a slightly alien character, forcing the audience to take a step back. This is then heightened through the stylised and astonishingly precise use of lip-synching, appropriating the soundtrack of sentimental pop and heartbroken anecdotes. As in Brand’s performance, one voice speaks through another.
The older voice to which Foxy brilliantly lip-synchs throughout tells of the first bloom of love and the optimism of marriage, followed by the long years together and the gradual souring of affection. It seems that love, like the milk being continually knocked back, has a sell-by date. This tender narrative is mashed up with well-known songs and projected video sequences, visually citing the familiar tropes of the music video. There seems to be an implicit comment about how these pop culture representations of love and romance infect our experience, as well as once again multiplying the distance, further isolating the lonely yet stubbornly smiling figure of Foxy.
There are also some strange yet gorgeous images. After the lengthened, almost ritualistic act of pouring milk into a glass bowl, Foxy spikes the thick white liquid with a drop of red colouring. The scarlet billows against the white, blossoming like a bruise; there are conflicting hints first of blood and then of candy hearts as the spreading colour turns the milk pink. This evocative concoction continues to play a symbolic role, later tipped out of its glass container and left to cascade in pink torrents over the table and floor. It’s an unusual yet oddly powerful visual metaphor for heartbreak, at which Foxy simply stares. No point crying over spilt milk.