From Where We Came: A Review of Provenance

Mackerel reviews Provenance a theatre performance by Autopoetics.

From Where We Came: A Review of Provenance

by Marc Nair, 31 Oct 2018

Image credit: Autopoetics. Photograph by Crispian Chan

Image credit: Autopoetics. Photograph by Crispian Chan

Provenance is a show from Autopoetics, comprising Chelsea Crothers, Laura Hayes and Maiya Murphy. They are an international, Singapore-based theatre collective that specialises in distinct physically and visually led theatre.

Provenance played for just two nights at the Drama Centre’s Black Box and the synopsis was thought-provoking to say the least:

Alice’s (Laura Hayes) hoarding disorder is worsening, her home is increasingly dilapidated, and her financial difficulties are escalating. With increasing desperation, Alice’s daughter, Agatha, (Maiya Murphy) fails to persuade her mother to move into a care home. Amongst Alice’s chaos, Agatha discovers a potentially valuable piece of art. Selling it to Caroline (Chelsea Crothers) could solve their problems but just might send Caroline’s own life into a tailspin. How can they all prove its provenance?

The floor and backdrop were laid with newspapers, the ultimate symbol of daily life. Indeed, the value of the quotidian was writ large into the fabric of the performance. The valuable piece of art in question, the bust of a noblewoman, became the focal point of the idea of worth and value in relation to the self and relationships. This was paralleled by the physical drama of the difference between collected objects and curated art.

The performance itself was tightly wrought and snappily delivered right from the opening scene, which was a listing of mundane items that grew in detail and culminated in a chorus of objects which foreshadowed an auction scene. It was a clever, if perhaps too-subtle nod, to how everyday objects have their own value and sense of ownership, but are often overlooked in everyday life. 

Throughout, the lives of Alice and Agatha, the mother and daughter, were interspersed with the potential buyer of the bust, Caroline, and her inner marital turmoil, as well as a series of disembodied monologues by the bust. Yes, the bust. Perhaps there were one too many points-of-view being presented, which resulted in frequent shifts in pace and tone and left the audience a little cold when it came to being invested in the characters. Perhaps this is inevitable for a play written through devising, but I felt that a few scenes could have been cut and others developed in greater depth to ground each character’s own emotional arc and give them added heft.

But where the play excelled was through little set pieces of movement with minimalist objects such as a piece of plastic, red string and the ubiquitous presence of the newspapers, which at one point doubled up as papier mâché facsimiles of valuable art objects. This emerged out of Laura Hayes’ method of devising - the playbox. Hayes used the (play)box as a material box with things inside, like a child’s toybox to inspire playful theatre-making not only in words but also in things.

The origin of the story, with its focus on hoarding, was inspired by Laura's great-aunt Bobby, who was a veterinarian and a consummate hoarder. Perhaps hoarding is a condition, but it is certainly one that spills out of the body and is manifested in physical space. Each object becomes wrought with meaning and necessity. No object can be discarded, as Agatha discovers when she tries in vain to throw various things of Alice's away. In an interview with Mackerel, Laura also quoted Robin Bernstein in talking about the role of things in our lives, "things transform and can even transform us - they shape and script our behaviour,” as seen by the anthropomorphising of the bust, which speaks, in a way, to Alice’s frustrations. Proving the provenance of the bust is also disproving Alice’s provenance, and it creates an intractable situation.

The heart of the performance is summed up for me in these two lines towards the end of the play: 

Alice: I want to die in my own home 

Agatha: But you also have to live 

Agatha is frustrated with that mix of a guilty child who has absconded from familial duties who holds residual affection for her mother. But Alice, stubborn as an ox, believes that to live is to know who you are and where you come from and if that means giving up on a windfall, then so be it. 

Through this compact, often darkly comic peek into aging and the art world (what a combination!), a recurring question is the consideration of our own provenance. Are we proud of our lineage or are we simply a messy, cluttered accretion of memories? In our interview, Laura added, “Where we come from shapes us hugely, particularly your relationship with your parents. Of course, we are shaped geographically and economically, but I think the reason theatre-makers keep coming back to families as source material is because we are all, to some extent, living out the way our our childhood structured us. Where we go to starts from where we came."

And provenance aside, the larger social issue of hoarding is also an telling indicator of social impairment or a lack of self-care. A study done by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2010 found that one in 50 Singaporeans will display hoarding behaviour in their lifetime. However, intervention is only required when it affects a person’s ability to function. And that is the cause of Alice’s irritation in the play. She still believes she’s fine, and does not want to give up her house for the sterile nursing home of Meadowdale, an issue that is also becoming far more pressing for Singaporeans as the pioneer generation ages and our rate of replacement plunges.

In the end, Provenance doesn’t offer us a way out. Hoarding may be a way of investing life into things to stave off the inevitable death of one’s self, but it brings its own set of complicated social issues, particularly in a world where excess and materialism is so closely tied to things. There is no auction house to ascertain our personal provenance, it is something we each have to figure out for ourselves.