For the first half an hour of Are we drawn onward into a new erA, presented as part of the Under the Radar festival by the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed, I confess I was mildly charmed but felt like I was clearly missing something. There were bright colors, and stylized movements that were almost-but-not-quite dance theater, and things falling from the sky–it almost felt like watching a sophisticated children’s show. But what language were they speaking? (Was it Flemish?) Had I really been foolish enough to sign up to review a show in a language I did not understand, without supertitles? Did those gestures mean something? What were they doing to that poor tree?
And then more exciting, but equally opaque in meaning, things started to happen. Look, a shiny balloon! Look, a giant gilded statue assembled before our eyes! Look, a rainbow of plastic bags and tissue paper falling from the sky! So far, so European avant-garde. (There is one sentence spoken in English, perhaps just to reassure this English-speaking audience that we haven’t completely lost our minds.)
But after three members of the ensemble come out with smoke guns and fill the stage with clouds, the piece comes to an abrupt end, well before it’s filled anywhere near its stated run-time. A curtain comes down. A cast member speaks in English about our inability to turn back time and undo the mistakes of the past. So now what? How do we go forwards? By going backwards.
And here—spoiler alert—that a teeny voice in your brain reminds you of the palindrome of the title. Because the entire show we’ve thus far seen now begins to rewind–on film, in a literal unmaking of the piece we’ve just seen being made, over a modern classical score. And as the whole thing unfolds backwards, it’s an act of both surprisingly poignant narrative magic and exceptional theatrical craft, well mapped out by director Alexander Devriendt and executed by the six-member ensemble. That incomprehensible language? It translates, sort of, into backwards-messaged English. (Anyone who ever tried really, really hard to hear “Paul is dead” will know that backwards messaging isn’t the easiest to understand, but the content is there–and augmented by supertitles.) And every movement, every gesture, every facial expression, here likewise operates as palindrome, reading itself back to find new meaning, in many cases more resonant meaning, than it had going forwards. Forwards, the piece contains creation but begins and ends with destruction–of a tree; of the very air of the stage. It’s not the most subtle metaphor for climate catastrophe, but there is genuine triumph in seeing the damage undone: the smoke sucked back into the guns; the debris flown back into the sky; the dismembered tree restored.
It’s a trick, of course–a very literal exercise in the suspension of disbelief–but an effective one while it lasts. We want to believe in the magic it promises, in the hope it offers that we can fix the damage we’ve caused. Unfortunately, the loop will run back to the beginning and stop. Once it’s over, and the lights once again allow us to peer through the scrim, we’re back to a debris-littered stage and a savagely destroyed tree, to an eaten apple and a smashed planter and a lost balloon. Time’s ravages weren’t fixed–merely suspended for a brief, shining, hopeful moment.