In the end there’s darkness, or at the very least a dark room at the Tristan Bates Theatre, where singer Héloïse Werner, the last of us, a one-woman Greek chorus, performs operatic odes to mortality and transience. The acoustics are choral, spiritual, melancholy. Sound lingers in the air. You’d expect the audience to absorb some of it, but then we’re not really here – not at the end.
Yet the end’s just the beginning. Thanks to the reverse epoch structure, three mini-acts, we’re ultimately transported from the presumed heat death of the universe to the inconsequential, devastating expiration of some other poor, no doubt unfulfilled sod, at which point the house lights go up and we mere mortals, for half an hour spectators, get to feel a little self-conscious. We’ve moved from the abstract to the personal. It’s a nice, rapey touch. Grief is personal after all; it leaves us exposed. It’s a lot to achieve with a lighting effect, but that’s the fleeting power of Emily Burns’ show – it does a lot with great economy. Werner can even sing and cry at the same time, which in a nutshell tells you what a modulated, controlled performance it is.
An opera about futility, regret, sorrow and existential angst feels timely in the year of Trump, Brexit and the death of David Bowie. If Ziggy Stardust can die then all other endings, as Werner suggests, are inevitable. Her eulogies, cut with pull quotes from luminaries such as Carl Sagan, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, light up the darkness. We like to think of them as immortal but Scenes from the End is here to remind us that the transmission of culture from man to boy to woman to girl is just a form of negation. In the end they’ll be no one to tell, no one to read, no one to think. But by going backwards the show can at least end on a temporal high. We still have our whole lives ahead of us, even if we’re stuck with the paradox that everything we think makes life worthwhile – literature, music, performance, beauty – showcased here, will eventually dissipate with the last memory.
Between the aural highs and emotional lows, there’s a little psychological agitation. The show plays like a visit to a hopeless schizophrenic; a woman so distraught at the prospect of death that she’s haunted by its nullifying potential. There’s no comfort for her and less for us, just confusion that humanity’s soundscape, universals like waking up and laughing, includes the temporal and lifestyle specificity of riding a motorbike. Even the interval is bluesy. Where’s the celebration of life and the optimism that one day we’ll beat the system using our cultivated genius and transcend? If writer Jonathan Woolgar has any thoughts on that, I’ll be waiting.