Contemporary dance seems perhaps an unusual medium to act as a timely reminder of a dark moment of our not-so-distant history. And yet this is the aim of Comrades In The Dark, choreographed by Caitlin Barnett, which is performing at Brixton House as part of their Housemates Festival.
The Anglo-British politics of almost 41 years ago are the catalyst to this highly physical piece. Some people will remember Bobby Sands from the events at the time – as the then-leader of the IRA, who died aged 27 at the Maze Prison in Belfast following 66 days of a hunger strike to restore his political status as a prisoner. Others may know of this moment of history through Steve McQueen’s unflinching debut film, Hunger.
Perhaps what is not so well remembered is that Sands wrote short stories and poetry during his time in H-Block. These were written on pieces of toilet roll or cigarette roll-up papers using a biro refill which had to keep hidden inside his body. It was these writings that gave choreographer Barnett her creative access how to translate the themes of resistance and oppression into the dance theatre work.
The 40-minute piece opens with thunderous, harsh percussion in darkness setting the tone as both exhilarating and threatening. Three of the dancers (Dakarayi Mashava, Miles Kearley and Richard Pye) begin as prison guards of the Maze Prison, wearing dark boiler suits and disconcerting bright yellow gloves. There’s an ominous symbology evoked immediately: H-Blocks wardens would wear latex gloves not simply for protection against the smeared excrement on the prisoners walls but, as depicted in the Steve McQueen movie, they would use the same pair of gloves to probe several prisoners’ rectums and mouths.
Enter Sean Moss as Bobby Sands. A flurry of energy, his movements veering from spinning to convulsive jerks – a force that needs to be controlled and subdued. It sets in motion the recurring image of individuality systematically being quashed.
The scene changes and a column of light is projected down to form a square on the floor – in which a dancer paces around, confined by the four walls of his cell. This becomes four individual lights, each containing a prisoner. It is a simple but effective visual rendering of the captivity, isolation and monotony of H-Block.
Jean-Loup Pinson has composed an ambitious, expansive soundtrack for Comrades In The Dark. Ranging from the threatening percussive to lyrical beauty, he fuses irresistible contemporary rhythms and traditional Irish music seamlessly to provide a musical canvas that is cinematic in scope. On top of this score, Comrades features live Bodhrán playing from the talented Joe Danks which serves not as mere Celtic musical veneer but drives the urgency of the piece. Using a variety of sticks to provide differing time signatures, vibes and even sound effects, the presence of live Bodhrán within the score further augments the Irish authenticity of the work.
As well as Pinson’s evocative score, Comrades In The Dark enhances its provenance by threading spoken-word excerpts of Bobby Sands’ poetry and prose throughout the piece. Director and choreographer Caitlin Barnett travelled to Belfast to meet and record the voices of former Republican prisoners – including former hunger strikers and a cellmate of Sands. There is something profoundly moving and grounding about hearing these voices knowing they have lived these events.
In I Fought A Monster Today, Sands wrote: “The monster is shrewd. It plays with me, it humiliates me, and tortures me. I’m like a mouse in comparison to this giant, but when I repel the torture it inflicts upon me I feel ten feet tall for I know I am right.” In a particularly effective and disconcerting section, the three dancers become a single monstrous creature that haunts and abuses the Sands character.
In his poem A Place To Rest, Sands wrote: “Oh! and I wish I were with the gentle folk / Around a hearthened fire where the fairies dance unseen /
Away from the black devils of H-Block hell”. Barnett takes the image of devils waltzing and incorporates it into a key sequence of Comrades. Within the more expected movement of contemporary dance, she assimilates ballroom poses as Sands and another prisoner waltz with their guards. It’s a striking dance of dominance and power whose mannered holds gives way to balletic lifts; the prisoners’ structured frames are twisted into submission as the guards bend them around in violent lifts.
Caitlin Barnett’s choreography throughout is exceptional. Not merely excellent in terms of dance content, but in terms of incorporating the themes from Bobby Sands’ writing and indeed advancing the work’s socio-political impact. Barnett goes on the list of choreographers along with the likes of Drew McOnie and Matthew Bourne, whose every new work is automatically a must-see.
Dancers Dakarayi Mashava, Miles Kearley and Richard Pye work tirelessly to deliver a thrilling portrayal of the brutality of oppression but special commendation must go to Sean Moss in the pivotal role as Bobby Sands. The strength and fluidity of his movement is mesmerising and at times seemingly gravity-defying.
You might think a contemporary dance piece based on the brutality and inhumanity of the 1981 hunger strike and the writings of Bobby Sands sounds like a grim night. While Comrades never recoils from the horrors and viciousness, it somehow finds and celebrates the strength of individual resistance and the beauty of life. The audience, both young and old, (and this reviewer) gave this incredible and life-affirming work a deserved standing ovation on its opening night.
Although Comrades In The Dark reimagines Bobby Sands’ 1981 experience, this extraordinary visceral dance piece more than chimes with the contemporary issue of oppression and occupation that dominate the nightly news agenda of 2022. It may be the history of Anglo-Irish relations of the early 80s, but it’s also the story of Ukraine or Palestine of now.
Comrades In The Dark is contemporary dance for both hearts and minds: Social relevant, fiercely political and choreographically awe-inspiring. If the recently-opened Brixton House continues to offer shows of the calibre of Comrades In The Dark, it is destined to become an essential South London arts hub very quickly.
The Recs rates Caitlin Barnett Company’s Comrades In The Dark an unmissable ★★★★★ (5 stars).
Comrades In The Dark
Comrades in The Dark continues at Brixton House until Friday 29th April.
The show is then heading to Glastonbury Festival and later is due to be going to the Ramallah Festival of Contemporary Dance in Palestine. Check Caitlin Barnett's website for future dates.Book TicketsVisit Artist Website