Review: Helen Paris, Vena Amoris
24 June 2007
Part of the Artsadmin Summer Season
Four scenes of longing, and turning to technology for comfort. A beautiful voice, lit up on stage, all of our eyes fixed on her – except I’m standing in her shadow, an empty stage, an empty auditorium. The promise of televisuals, our antics recorded in chrome, our voices everywhere through the air … but of course none of it is free. Someone’s behind the camera, someone’s flipping the switch, someone’s topping you up. The electric heart, whirring on its axis, replaceable with a mechanical watch – and my finger still tingles from touching it directly. The doorframe, the mirror, behind each threshold might be the hope of our longing. And when I at last see your face, it’s a trick of the light, the faint smell of burning but there’s glass between us, and you’ve arrived just to say goodbye.
The idea of the one-to-one performance seems to hold the promise of escaping from the trickery of ordinary theatre, of establishing a real and direct connection between performer and spectator. Helen Paris’s Vena Amoris does the opposite: it immerses the spectator in exactly that theatrical trickery, that vantage from which the mechanism behind the illusion is revealed; and it defers and obscures the direct contact for which it nonetheless yearns. But in this itinerant experience, a complex relationship between the magical and the practical is developed, and the illusory becomes all the more compelling for having its workings exposed.
The piece begins with a call on my mobile phone while I’m waiting outside. It’s Paris, telling me she’s going to stay on the phone with me, and inviting me to enter the theatre. The theatre is empty, with a chair lit up in the middle of the stage. She asks me to sit in the chair. When I do, the house lights go down, the stage lights blind my view of the auditorium, Doris Day starts singing “Make Someone Happy”, and Paris starts talking about the danger of theatre. Not the moral or emotional danger, but the physical danger – the risk of fire from the gaslight of pre-electric theatres, the reservoir of water that used to hang over the stage, invisible to the audience but always at the edge of the actors’ awareness, and the symbol of comfort that is the fire curtain.
Following Paris’s instructions, I am led through the levels of Toynbee Hall, up its stairs, inside a fire cupboard, and at one point into a room actually called the Fire Room. I watch a film which Paris tells me was made by Thomas Edison, while she describes to me – over my mobile phone – Edison’s rival Nikola Tesla’s dream of free wireless energy. Alone in a room with a whirring Van de Graaff generator, I am asked to turn off my phone and then feel the generator’s electric charge with the third finger of my left hand, the finger that Paris tells me the Egyptians believed was connected directly to the heart. A beautiful woman opens a door to reveal her twin on the other side, and at the journey’s end I sit before my own reflection in a dressing room mirror ringed with incandescent bulbs. And in a brief glimpse there is a moment of contact, but with little more than Paris’s shadow.
What am I to make of all this illusion, of this strange odyssey through the stuff of sideshow trickery (the Edison film is a kind of burlesque gag; the Van de Graaff generator is what makes people’s hair stand on end in the funshow)? What is the danger of falling in love with an illusion? Does it hurt anyone to believe that the singer is singing just for me? That the sound of your voice on the phone is the same as being with you? Does it mean any less if my heart is racing just because it’s electric, after all, and there’s an external current running through it?
This piece is a moving and intelligent reflection on these questions, a journey through a world which is helplessly romantic and heartbreakingly earnest. The connections between us are fragile enough (as I found out after my phone gave out briefly); it’s no wonder we fall in love with the technology that connects us, even long after we’re gone.
Written by Theron Schmidt
Helen Paris is co-artistic director of Curious