10 memories of a performance by Tom Marshman, long ago
The Invitation by Tom Marshman
12 / 04 / 08
Tom Marshman’s onstage presence, alone behind the microphone, has a remarkable duality: at once the man is striking, commanding without being actorly, deft without seeming choreographed; but at the same time, his tall, willowy frame is not completely the centre of events. In The Invitation he is the vessel for memories, stories from an older generation. He is in the service of tales from the war, anecdotes of parents long gone, a giddy night at the Savoy, a leisurely country walk. As he delivers these recollections Marshman somehow defocuses himself, his outline blurring and his voice becoming more distant, a voice neither his own nor of the original source, but instead somewhere in between. Somewhere new.
But first, very first, he holds an hourglass with its sands quickening, and facing us steps back through five pools of fading light, reciting the words to a sentimental song we all know. I remember the artist Franko B at a talk in this very auditorium several months back, and to paraphrase, he said: “People don’t have an issue with anyone putting their depression on stage. But if you put your sentimentality on stage, it’s strange, people have much more of a problem.” So I search for the part of me that has a problem with Windmills Of Your Mind, I find the switch, I flick it to ‘off’, and suddenly everything is fine. Cheesy? Certainly. Inappropriate? Hell, no.
It’s a few days later, and it’s Tom and I, and it’s a coffee in a café. Tom tells of how he introduced groups of senior citizens to his practice, of the workshops where they tuned in – remarkably quickly – to the artistic methods he’s cultivated over the years: of the contemplation of a given object leading to a narrative, leading to an action. Take the simplest and most unremarkable of stories about the laying out of neckties on a bed. Onstage, it becomes a slow crawl back from the audience with a wake of silk and multicoloured cotton spreading from Marshman’s fists like a giant fan. “When I performed it, the woman who gave me that memory, she was sat right next to the ties. It was funny. It was just co-incidence, but the fabric was right next to her feet. She couldn’t have been closer.” He is very concerned to do these memories justice. And it makes me wonder: what will I remember? What must it be like, to see the slightest of reminiscences made flesh, a flashing of the synapses crystallized on stage? How did Tom decide what form they would take? “There’s already a musicality to them,” he says, “The stories have been told so many times. They’re like routines.”
Marshman sketches five or six stories onto tracing paper, using wax crayons. He fills in the cord on a telephone, a railway line, a clutch of champagne flutes. Laid on top of each other, the filigree papers form an impressionist cross-section of slowly receding images; enlarged and projected onto the wall behind the performer, they flicker – part faulty television, part cataract. Crystalline, but far from crystal clear.
“I suppose people must have kept filling my glass, and I just kept drinking and drinking.” The flurry and bustle of a party at a posh London hotel; bottled inside someone’s head, kept over decades and decanted by Marshman in the form of one simple action: the spinning of a flapper’s party frock on an otherwise empty clothes rail, which the performer twirls around himself with increasing velocity, its castor wheels rising light-headedly from the floor now and then. Marshman has made shows about perfume in the past. This moment has a base note of quiet recollection, a middle note of guilty regret, and the molecules of the top notes are those of immense joy and fun, fizzing quickly and dissipating faster than the rest. Yep, that’s right – it smells like champagne.
When Marshman delivers Edward VIII’s resignation speech, he does it in his usual modulations, almost monotone, kicking against a couple of notes either side of where his voice most comfortably rests; but all the same, I still hear Edward Fox. The speech is just too familiar. “It was a recurring theme amongst that generation, everyone remembers it,” Tom says over coffee. “Funnily enough, when I start that speech, people sometimes think it’s me, addressing the audience. ‘At long last I am able to say a few words of my own’…!”
“I don’t know if it was his strongest show”, I say to my girlfriend on the way home from The Invitation. But moments later I realise that’s not what I mean. In the past we’ve seen Marshman strolling off into the sunset at the end of his allotment triptych – suitcase in hand, trilby perched on head. We’ve seen his exposed behind embossed by cutlery, we’ve watched him disembowelling a feather pillow in order to pull a pristine purple plum from its innards. We’ve seen him grin like a loon on top of a slow-mo bucking bronco. But what did we see him do in The Invitation? You could argue that we didn’t see Tom do anything: rather, we saw lots of other people, offstage, off-camera, doing and saying things via Tom. It is his strongest work yet, and the subtle beauty of The Invitation is that, as a show about memory, it sits best in the memory, a catalyst for future recollection. Even now, I have it… underwear made out of a WWII parachute. Yatton to Cheddar, over the footbridge. Memories like folds of the brain: a crystal bowl that meant so much more than a crystal bowl, but “it’s just a crystal bowl.”
Why do people of my grandparent’s generation sound so different when captured on tape? What is it that makes their tones so identifiable? It’s not just the wistful crack of their ageing vocal chords – it’s something less superficial than that. Maybe it’s because they can remember a time before voicemail, dictaphones and home recording; a time before it was assumed you’d know the sound of your own words coming back at you. Now and then during The Invitation, playback of their tales breezes between the auditorium speakers, fragmentary, quiet, conversational. The entire performance ends with laughter. Communal laughter, whooping, hooting, louder and louder, the type of exhilarating laughter that’s simply overjoyed with itself. “I didn’t want it to be just about the past,” says Tom, “That’s why I ended the piece with a future memory, the itinerary for a holiday put together by two of the ladies.”
Finishing his coffee, Tom says “You know that story about her getting drunk and spending all night on the floor of the ladies loos? I thought of doing that. And maybe filming it.”
And at the close, Marshman quietly leaves the stage, sitting alongside the rest of the audience (which this afternoon includes many of the original storytellers, on the front row, some unexpectedly close to their memories.) Images appear on the screen, portraits of the people whose stories Marshman has framed, scored and sketched. It’s here at the end that we see the starting point for each branch of the show, the objects themselves. The bits of wood, lumps of crystal, the postcards and clothes, the lovely detritus that has somehow clung to these smiling folks. And I go home, and I open up an old chocolate box on top of my vinyl collection. It’s jam packed full of sugar cubes collected by my paternal Grandma, from all over Yorkshire and all over the world. After her funeral my Dad had clumped down the stairs, shown it to the gathered family, and said: “What the bloody hell are we going to do with these?” And I think: Tom would know.