Volcano Theatre’s play i-witness is currently touring, and if you are interested in fiction and its effects, this is a play to see. It’s based on – or rather, inspired by – WG Sebald’s loose and sprawling novel, The Rings of Saturn (2002). The members of the theatre company read the book and then responded to it, in remarkably different ways. Of course, this is a book that lends itself to a range of interpretations – it could be a novel about walking; it could be about academia; it is also about dozens of other things – what it’s ‘about’ is perhaps not a good question to ask of this novel. But in their different responses, the four performers draw out quite different aspects of the novel in a way that is not only enlightening for fans of Sebald’s novel, but also for those who are interested in fiction and its meanings more generally.
I can’t explain the play properly; but it opens with a film, accompanied by noises from the cast, during which I went from thinking, “This is unusual” to “I hope this isn’t how the whole play goes”. It wasn’t; the play is a ragbag of fragments, responses, criticism and facts, mixed up in a way reflective not only of the novel but also of the reader’s response to it. The cast took questions after the show and explained that little of the play is scripted; it is intended to evolve in front of the audience, which is an appealing idea, and it certainly seems to work well.
I was particularly attracted to the closing scenes, in which Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson (left) is projected onto a screen, while a copy of Sebald’s book is placed on a table under a light, and delicately dissected, then hammered, nailed down, attacked and finally torn to pieces. The inference is clearly that a book should not be anatomised; to dissect it, to attempt to pin down a final meaning, to pull it apart in works of criticism, kills it entirely and removes any possible anjoyment. It’s a great image and analogy, and also a salutory lesson for literary critics and academics!