It’s a hot summer evening on the South Bank. A group of teenagers are sitting around, smoking, taking in the heat, buzzing from their togetherness. Looking up, they see a figure at the top of the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a woman or is, at least, dressed in women’s clothes. The figure wears a black coat, sunglasses and red scarf around its head. As they look up, she is looking back at them, through a pair of binoculars. They laugh and in the boisterous cruelty of highspirited youth, they shout: “JUMP”.
The woman was one of the Clod Ensemble’s Red Ladies. Later that evening, she would be performing on the stage of the Purcell Room alongside eighteen others. I have no way of knowing which she was because, in the world beyond the stage, the Ladies are all dressed identically. They flit about, moving quickly, appearing somewhere only to recede into the distance before you know it. The question that underlies the whole piece is: “Who are these women? And what do they want?” We can interpret their sudden, unexplained in any way we see fit, as the lounging adolescents chose to do. Someone goes to the top of the building and jumps off, ending their life.
It’s not a very satisfying narrative perhaps but it’s a narrative nonetheless. The Ladies resist easy categorisation though. They are neither hysterics nor maenads. They coolly observe from highly visible positions like slightly inept secret agents and yet you know that at some level they want to be seen, want us to know that they are watching us. The black and red colour scheme feels terribly English in a slightly vintage way: it’s the colour of buses, taxis and phone boxes. They become part of the furniture.
After they lead us on a circuitous and slightly token journey from the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer to the Purcell Room via backstage, they seem to be everywhere. The effect is slightly dreamlike, like a scene from Being John Malkovich. When we finally do take our seats, they place their identical red suitcases at the back and flock together as the soundtrack begins to play. The use of samples from all over the world, from political and cultural spheres, high and low culture are cut up in a frenetic barrage of sounds. We may begin to make connections to the struggles of women in positions of political power, as we hear Benazir Bhutto, for example, but these attempts to give a clear, concise meaning to what is happening never really get you very far.
If there is meaning in the madness, it’s not necessarily to be found in the pieces of spoken text that are being sampled (from Mussolini and Bob Crow to Uri Geller) in as much as it is to be found in the alternating strains of solidarity and division that are physicalised and represented by the performers. At times, these women of all ages, nationalities and performance backgrounds move as a perfect unit. It’s very much a choreography of shapes, taking inspiration in herds and flocks of animals moving together (David Attenborough’s voice is heard at one point). They change into different outfits and become individuals again and there are moments of discord that occasionally erupt into unbridled violence that feels dangerous and shocking.
The very gesture of presenting these women on stage and developing a mystery behind their intentions has a potency and, almost a decade of its inception, the fictional secret society that these performers appear to be members has actually become the thing it once represented in many ways.
As the show is recreated and remounted, some performers stay, some go, all leave their mark on the piece and bring specific talents to the community. To read through the list of current performers, you see brilliant performance makers like Kazuko Hohki and Silvia Mercuriali (Il Pixel Rosso), alongside the extraordinary force of nature that is Diana PayneMyers (born in 1928), accompanied on stage like a senior stateswoman to deliver lines of poetry by Peter Oswald.
These are women claiming the stage as an all-female space where standard narratives and narrow possibilities are not prescribed to them. It is the playful and elliptical nature of the work that suggests something much bigger lying beneath it.
If the piece needs to be about anything, it feels like it may be about crowds. The Ladies wind their way through the crowded public place of the South Bank only to appear as an undulating, shifting crowd on stage: alternating between order and chaos. The outfits become a kind of plumage, an understated act of carnivalesque dress-up. Paul Clark’s music is as integral to the piece’s whole as any of the movement or other visual signifiers and his soundtrack has a cumulative restless feel to it, like moving around a busy city or flitting through an FM radio dial. In the playful juxtapositions, the music moves into hip hop territory, reminding me of J Dilla’s seminal Donuts album at times in his creative restlessness and urbanity.
What makes Clod Ensemble so special and valuable as a company is the way the music and movement is so deeply integrated. Even the word “integrated” probably gives the wrong impression. The choreography isn’t responding to the music and the music isn’t placed on top of the movement. The two have been developed side by side and you can’t imagine one without another. Even at its simplest and lightest (and it’s a show that definitely has its moments of levity and humour), everything about Red Ladies is deliberate and specific.
Certain moments are particularly memorable such as the fight that breaks out or the onion tart recipe that becomes an angry protest song. Often they are brief, gone before you know it. This is the modus operandi of the Red Ladies it feels and, as such, it continued to remind me of albums like Donuts or Madlib’s Madvillainy: composed of short, exquisite moments, never trying to milk anything. Some people may find this frustrating but, when so many companies seem to make work that feels like it’s treading water, it’s invigorating to see something like this that is overflowing.