Sometimes I watch a piece and think, I have no idea what I am watching. High Bed Lower Castle wasn’t quite that abstract, but its different components didn’t gel together. Instead, this series of movement and vocal pieces were assembled loosely, leaving me frustrated as to what I just saw.
The piece opened with an almost Gregorian style chant as a veiled figure (Malik Nashad Sharpe) came to the stage. In a translucent black, his face hooded over, he began a series of movements against a white wall and was soon joined by a second veiled figure (Ellen Furey). The two worked in silence, and eventually their movements began to make sense. They were pantomiming fresco painting or some kind of wall painting. It was quite beautiful, albeit perhaps ran a little long. I found myself returning to the piece’s title, Higher Bed, Lower Castle. Were they meant to be in imitation of Medieval or Renaissance monks painting the walls of a church or mystics painting a cave wall? I was intrigued as to what would happen next.
The piece entered its second vignette. Sharpe discovered and then opened a trunk set to the front of the stage, and the sounds shifted from the stillness of the first vignette to a loud, disconcerting series of cartoonish noises. It was as if a contemporary world had intruded on a romanticized, quieter past. A television suspended to the side of the stage drew the performers’ attentions (and the audiences’) and eventually collapsed to the ground. We were in the contemporary era, or close to it. Perhaps it was a warp to the ’90s. Even Furey and Sharpe’s donned 80s and 90s rave outfits, combining wigs, neon, plush, and different fabrics ripped strategically. I especially found myself drawn to Furey’s plush pants with dragon like spiked protrusions. It was one of the few things I could attach back to the concept of “castle” in the title.
The vignettes that followed included a series of paired, physical dances of very high calibre. The frenetic nature of it reminded me most of a Tik Tok scroll. There was also a moment where Sharpe shouted the contents of a gigantic scroll, like a herald delivering a message, though his words were drowned out entirely by the noise of the sound system. In perhaps my favorite dance vignette, the two of them engaged in a Tekken-style battle with long sticks. Get ready for strobe lights! At another point, Furey read a book calmly while Sharpe rather heroically held a squat position on a table with a toy rat on his shoulder, expressing deep fear in his eyes and his stiffness. If it was meant to be comic, it didn’t hit. It actually made me feel his sense of discomfort deep in my own body.
I found myself trying to assemble these components as the piece continues. It was too artful to be a joke, too sincere to be accidental. Yet the show’s meaning was lost on me. And just when I thought the whole thing might be just an incoherent series of interesting vignettes with no real throughline, the show ended with a gorgeous duet of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide. Their voices were angelic and harmonious. It was a great bookend to the centre portions. Had they in fact recorded the earlier singing for the wall painting?
But, even with such a gentle ending, I felt no more certain of what I had just watched. It was frustrating since I was invested in what I was watching. I felt a transportation from introverted energy to extroverted. I could identify emotions that the piece raised. Not every work needs to have a single theme or a consistent message, of course, but while watching I found myself distractedly wondering, “What is this about?” I was frustrated trying to figure out the why of this piece. Are all the pieces attached to castle? Is it meant to be a collection of moments from Saturday morning cartoons that feature the theme of “castle”? Is it meant to be some analysis of entertainment today? Nothing quite added up for me. Nonetheless, Furey and Sharpe are talented performers both as vocalists and as dancers. Even if the piece itself didn’t quite gel, they are magnetic.
I don’t usually like to call out tech as a key problem, the sound was jacked so loudly that it was painful. I wasn’t sure if this was an artistic choice or the fault of those at the controls. But the loud sound detracted from the production by drawing attention away from the performers. Bring earplugs.
Higher Bed, Lower Castle is part of the Festival TransAmériques now on until June 9. For tickets and info on shows, click HERE.