29 March 2018
Lily James is humming with excitement after Speed Death of the Radiant Child
The Žižkov Television Tower (Czech: Žižkovský vysílač) is a unique transmitter tower built in Prague between 1985 and 1992. Designed by the architect Václav Aulický and the structural engineer Jiří Kozák, it stands high above the city's traditional skyline from its position on top of a hill in the district of Žižkov, from which it takes its name.
In 2000, 10 fiberglass sculptures by Czech artist David Černý called "Miminka" (Babies), crawling up and down were temporarily attached to the tower's pillars.
Speed Death of the Radiant Child takes care, exquisitely. This care begins with the most decisive and sensitive pre-show care that has been provided so far at this festival. The care is in the sound design too, and the mixing. This is a loud show, when it’s loud, but this loudness is epic, often soft, and even when it accompanies Hetty Melrose, as Laura, fitting on the floor, there is a precision of volume that allows you to experience the sensory overload safely. Nat Norland surely deserves a judges’ award for creating aural textures that challenge you, overwhelm you, but ultimately remain generous to the audience, the performers and the script. Even that incessant hum, described by each character. I believe that a less sensitive production would have used this as cue to create jarring, nasty, head-screwing sound. Here, the hum is low, persistent, intriguing. More care. Like the care and subtlety of Maud Fleminger Thompson’s costume design. Charlotte (Steffi Felton) wears a T-shirt with a cityscape across it – if she goes down, it all goes down with her.
Projected onto the back curtain are Carvaggio wounds and Lucio Fontana slits, enacted on bodies and on canvases. It’s an epic slideshow of stigmata and erotica. Heather Milsted as Justine is trying to pierce the dumb, beautiful exterior of the radiant babes she is teaching art history to. These artworks turn her on, intellectually, sexually, make her jelly. She is scared of teaching them to an appalled and appalling generation that she cannot move. The ways in which Speed Death pierces are meta-theatrical too. Director Ben Kulvichit uses the themes of these paintings to dictate the action at performance level. The opening silence is a piercing of the space between audience and performers. Later, when clinical psychologist Nick goes to kiss Justine she protests - "I’m working." He replies "so am I." As what? Not as their characters, but as actors too, working through the text like it is a genome to unlock.
“Blue like skin.” “Bright red angry.” These colours illuminate the central dichotomy of what Charlotte might be, and what she might do, her with the lump of blue junk embedded in her skin. For Nick, she is a kind of problem, something that can be tidied up once the language exists to describe her. For Justine, the art history lecturer, she offers a kind of solution: the one student in her class with the humanity and sensitivity that she needs to justify her own career.
Joe Matthews, as Ash, describes the chalk outline on the pavement that he could have been. As he imagines his own literal speed death, this image brings a layer of meaning to Keith Haring’s art. When we look at Haring’s white outlines, are we looking at the radiant child, or the outline of the place where the radiant child once was? This idea is opened out via nurse Laura’s obsession with dead child-star Jordan Beeker. Unlike the rest of his fans, who drop out of the vigils year by year, for Justine, Beeker’s influence over her life becomes more potent with every year of his absence. Beeker is Haring again, Princess Diana, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, their iconography and legend moving at faster speeds away from their actual existences with every year they are mourned.
The characters can only deal in after-image, deferred images: Justine and her projections of paintings, Ash and his endlessly interpretable dreams. Any move towards real vulnerability, actual bodily exposure, is calamitous: A kiss between Ash and Nick leaves Nick physically scorched (again, Fleminger Thompson’s care with that hoody). When he tries to extend that passion into his relationship with Justine, it terrifies her. Until that moment between Nick and Justine we have only seen them fake at touching. When Nick tells Justine to kiss him, she kisses her fingers and places them on his head: chaste, saintly. Ben Kulvichit and the performers have created definite symbolic physicalities for each character, and each fingertip matters, just like Jesus with two fingers raised in a Renaissance painting. A particularly gorgeous example of this is Justine’s strange, drugged limp to the phone after she pulls herself up out of her crisis halfway through the performance.
This production also is very funny, with cracking jokes about porn and female orgasms. I promise.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca