Much of the work that occurs within the broad category of contemporary ‘post-dramatic’ performance to which Best Before End might be said to belong, attempts to use the resources of the theatre in an allusive and poetic fashion.
This particular show however, simply is a poem.
This means that (like all the best poetry) Best Before End is at once elegantly simple in its stylistic economy and yet exceptionally dense in terms of its potential import.
This makes me wary of writing about it for fear of offering an interpretation that might be reductive or which might otherwise spoil its impact for a future spectator.
The elements that make up this poem include; a sparse, beautifully written script; Graeme Miller’s shifting score which mixes noise, music and ‘natural sound’ , Marty Longthorne’s precisely defined lighting, a full length sleeveless black slip and an almost identical dress; a pair of elaborate high heeled shoes, a daffodil, a shabby red arm chair, a hand full of sugar cubes.
What makes it a poem is the way these things are orchestrated and articulated by Leslie Hill’s direction and by Helen Paris’s performance, through, around and in relation to each other and to the space of the stage- but above all to Paris’s voice and body.
Paris is a gifted and intelligent physical performer. In all the Curious shows I have seen she creates a complex physical ‘score’ that works alongside, in counterpoint or in contrast to the other verbal and non-verbal aspects of the piece. In Best Before End she is at the height of her powers, using her body to weave complex images that are by turns sculptural, sinuous, playful and painfully contorted.
At the start of the show as she stands her in her black slip, her arms and face picked out in sharp relief against the surrounding dark, with red wine leaking like tears from the hollows of her collarbones, she is also at the height of her particular, striking neo-classical beauty. A figure from an ancient frieze.
I usually try to avoid commenting on a performer’s looks but in this instance the sense of Paris being in the lovely and powerful bloom of her maturity (as a performer and as an individual) are important to the affect and meaning of Best Before End, which (for me) is ‘about’ the process of aging and the journey towards death.
The makes it sound grim and the grimness of these things are not denied. This show touches on the dread of the potential loss of ‘self’ through ageing; a time of confusion when however carefully we attempt to marshal our ‘last words’ we will be unable to control how they tumble out; a time when faltering memory turns the familiar turns strange so that the hokey cokey appears as some unfathomable ritual; when trapped in an arm chair in a nursing home the space isolating us from others might as well be measured in continents.
Yet, the way this is touched on, in itself renders the everyday familiar (the hokey-cokey, the cross word puzzle, the cup of tea, the arm chair) ‘strange’ in a way that allows for surprise and also for humour and as importantly, for a sense of mystery and transformation.
Paris’s opening words in the show invoke an image of leaning back and the stars falling into her mouth, echoed in latter images of sugar cubes as stars (eventually crushed under her heels) and this makes a running thread in the piece that connects the potential loss of sensible speech with the notion of falling. This is embodied in extraordinary, striking image delivered in the last few moments of the piece but metaphorically throughout the show Paris is always figured as slowly falling in time and space in a way that embraces but is also beyond human time and space; always falling into a profound darkness beyond human thought and speech.
As always with poetry there is more than one way of interpreting this imagery and there is also more to this piece than I have noted.
But I leave it with you