Arts of the UK 2020: Stampin’ in the Graveyard at the Electric Dreams Festival (Review)
Gaining mindfulness and awareness of the self with your spirit guides at the end of the world.
LONDON – Through all of history’s disasters and crises, never has there been a time the end of the world has felt as close as it does now. But rather than sitting around and moping, theatremaker Elisabeth Gunawan and musician Jake Parris have instead taken inspiration from the apocalypse, creating an immersive audio experience in the form of Stampin’ In The Graveyard.
Taking place in an imagined future, where the world has ended, and the only thing left standing is a microphone in the last theatre on earth, Stampin’ In The Graveyard presents a poetic, abstract account of the things we have lost while fully placing our mindscape in this deep, dark realm.
When the experience begins, Parris removes us from our noisy daily lives, encouraging us to lie down on the floor, close our eyes and relax. To fully enjoy the experience, one must remain open-minded, and be ready to enter an almost meditative state as the audio washes over us. Parris tells us to ‘trace the back of our skulls’, where we will ‘find a door’; this is not a physical instruction, rather, a mental one where his voice guides us to become aware of our bodies, knowing every curve and shape as we enter an imagined universe within our minds. These instructions are simple, yet allow to feel as if we are brought into a strange underground venue, the sound of wind fading away to lively strings and drums, a powerful event about to unfold.
As we are told to breathe in and out, there is a hypnotic rhythm to this exercise that calms us down, the sound of waves in the background acting as counters to keep our breathing steady and constant. Now immersed in our own imagination, we let our minds run free, as Gunawan begins to narrate. As much as her words are the same for everyone, she remains abstract enough for the image evoked in each listener’s head to be different, depending on their own personalities and imagination.
We hear the sound of chattering, and it makes us miss being outdoors and connecting with others, the feeling of being in a theatre, or chatting with friends at the pub. This is a moment that reminds us of what life was like before the lockdown, and we ache for the time when we could be free again. There is a distinct sense of longing and nostalgia for the past that lingers and characterises the entire piece, as we hear ‘used to gather in the hundreds to worship’, lamenting the loss of songs that would lift our souls. At times we hear what sound like radio waves heard while tuning a listening device, as if we are searching for the right frequency to transport us to a new place, taking us from scene to scene in our heads.
It’s easy to fall into the lull of Gunawan and Parris’s voices, with an alluring sadness and depression that makes us think that the world has gone through some kind of nuclear winter, before cutting back to happier times, their sensual, lilting words giving us almost a tangible sensation on our skin with every sentence. The soundscape turns gothic as Gunawan recalls a raven flying over a house, using morbid imagery of eyeball-eating creatures and mad clowns, visceral ideas that bring people’s fears to the fore. There is a deliberateness to the language that helps construct the world they want to bring us into, and allows our imagination to run wild.
When we are told to ‘sit in a circle’, while we know that our screens are right in front of us, and we are separated at home, we somehow still feel connected as the same audience listening to the same soundtrack, carrying the same energy. In describing an aeroplane as a metaphor for life, they compare it to a vessel which is taking us all on our own separate paths, where everyone may be headed to the same destination, yet everyone has their own agenda, rushing somewhere or the other. Yet for a short period of time, when housed in the same place, we are temporarily occupying this shared space together.
If anything, Gunawan and Parris showcase that they have an incredibly clear sense of how to craft a successful audio experience, an experience that is performed with infinite calm, where we feel like we’ve been caught in a bubble where no time passes. Considering that the whole experience takes place on a digital platform, it may sound oxymoronic that the aim is to disconnect us from a hyperstimulated digital world. Yet at the end of the half hour experience, there is something deeply cathartic felt, the time spent within our own heads beginning a process of healing and hope.
As the experience comes to a close with uplifting background music, we are almost tempted to stand up and sing in spite of the sound of thunder from a storm in the background. We leave knowing that while there is uncertainty for now, there is certainty in the hope that lies just on the horizon. We are comforted as we hear the sound of the ocean, and it feels like we’ve come back to shore, safe and sound at last.
Stampin’ in the Graveyard ran from 5th to 8th August at 11am and 7pm BST.