John Hansard Gallery
South East England

“Oh my God!”

“Don’t you dare lower your voice to me!”

“If we fail the earth will die!”

The voices of seven actors pitch 45 minutes of high-tempo narrative fragments from Hollywood disaster movie scripts. This plurality of voices is urgently responding to emergency situations that are manufactured, unseen and imaginary. All the Hollywood archetypes are here – the hero battling the flawed leadership, the jobsworths and officialdom, the media commentating and the small maverick teams that save the day. This work is impeccably self-conscious and ironic, witty and intelligent, easily exposing the absurdity of the disaster movie genre while paying affectionate homage. But to describe the piece as delightful is not to deny its substance and many resonances.

“Leak! Evac!”

“We don’t need heroes!”

It extends the edge-of-the seat moment to the duration of the performance and demands as much concentration from the audience as it does from the performers. It is riveting, high-intensity stuff, demanding for the actors and entertaining for the audience. But it’s also unusual and multi-layered, a brittle exposition of synthetic emotion and manufactured drama that reads in several ways.

“If you’re not up to it, walk out that door!”

Taken out of its Hollywood visual and dramatic context, this language of human crisis and crisis management is shown as both inadequate and essential. The voices echo in the black box, shouting out fear, pain, uncertainty and defiance, but at what? In the absence of filmic context, the fragments become howls about life itself – illness, sabotage, apocalyptic storms, attack, war, the devastation of loss and remade psychological landscapes.

“How do you feed and shelter four million people?”

“I have no control!”

“We’re screwed!”

For all our urban infrastructure and globalised civilisation, “disaster, threat and survival is a way of life” as artist Rowena Easton says. This piece emphasises how much of that disaster and threat is man-made and unnecessary. We may not have initiated the meteorite crashing to earth or the perfect storm, but there are hundreds of disaster movie scenarios that dramatise the flawed human character, repeated agent of its own many catastrophes. It could be tempting to read “!” as being about human triumph and the will to survive; for me it says as much about our own perverse tendency towards self-destruction.

“I don’t think my bits can handle these kinds of temperatures!”

The concentrated dosage of Hollywood Americana is comical, but it also emphasises how our individual verbal responses to crises are conditioned by the internalisation of the language of popular culture. The ersatz emotion of Hollywood film has become our internal soundtrack and language of choice, but is wholly insufficient for the task of expressing the complex enormity of emotional crisis. But we use it because we have lost the ability to do otherwise. Conspicuously missing from our internalised scripts is any awareness of the metaphysical beyond clichéd cries to a god that few of us believe in anymore.

“I felt like Luke Skywalker when he learned that Darth Vader was his father!”

“Doctor! Nurse! Anybody!”

“Holy mother of God!”

“!” performed in its black box void suggests another great illusion of the disaster and action movie, which is that we live in a communal world of colleagues, enemies and loved ones, all constantly ready to act and react, to respond to every stimulus that comes their way and by doing so find redemption. It denies the alienation and isolation of urban and suburban life, where the reality is that no-one really cares about anything much – and most certainly nowhere near as much as they do in the movies.

“You know we were lucky tonight!”