The Welsh are a strange people; not strange in an unpleasant sort of a way, just odd. Different. Unusual. And so it makes a kind of cosmic sense that Wales should be the first country to have one of their islands float off on a tour of the North Atlantic.
Tonight’s performance of Floating at the Sydney Opera House has been one of the most profound experiences I have ever undergone. It was theatre in a most pure and hallowed sense; unique, fleeting, and momentary.
Hugh Hughes, the protagonist, foretells this, referring repeatedly to connection, and highlighting our disconnection from the world by running around the auditorium, touching the three walls and pointing out how they disconnect us from the outside world. The interaction with the audience continues as he and Sioned encourage the audience to say hello to someone they haven’t met before and explain the structure of the show to come, handing around some objects relevant to the story. This introduction was said to usually last 20 minutes, but in our case, took 45. During this time, three groups of latecomers entered, the first of which was welcomed gently. When the second group entered, we were encouraged to applaud, but by the time the third couple entered, 25 minutes late, the audience needed no encouragement to give them a standing ovation, and Hugh generousy praised their courage at entering so late.
The humour was light and easy, not at all forced, and by the time Hugh and Sioned were able to begin their story, we were asked if we needed to go to the toilet. As an audience, we had formed a bond. Sioned passed around an inflatable globe, to illustrate how far from Sydney Anglesey was, and upon realising that it was a beach ball, the gentleman in the front row threw it into the auditorium and we tossed it around for some time. There came one point in the story when a woman in the row behind me was laughing uncontrollably, and an infection of laughter took over the entire audience for several minutes. Hugh engaged her in conversation and it became apparent that it was her birthday, so under Hugh and Sioned’s encouragement, we all sang happy birthday to Sue. There also came a time when someone needed to go to the toilet, and Sioned said she needed to go too, so we arranged an impromptu interval and Hugh stayed and chatted to those of us in the front row and a gentleman who had come from somewhere deeper in the auditorium.
The connections made were so natural and simple and honest that you didn’t realise what was happening until Hugh reminded us of the theme of connection that was at the core of this ‘show’. The story, while well-structured and relevant, was almost incidental to the entire nature of the evening, and when the show was over, and the audience offered an unequivocal standing ovation to the performers, who remained on stage, there was a sense in the audience that we wanted to stay. I know I sat back down after the ovation, and felt that I could remain here, as part of this audience, forever.
I don’t know whether it is the same at every performance, but since the Opera House’s documentation for the show says it lasts 75 minutes, and since our performance with its interruptions from late arrivals and an impromptu toilet break lasted no less than 120 minutes, I doubt it. Each performance is completely unique, and I could happily return and see another if the Opera House wasn’t so far from home. The hubbub from the receding crowd was much more enlivened than any theatre audience I’ve ever been part of, and the ease with which members of the audience, who had been strangers at first, chatted and engaged was remarkable.
Floating is theatre at its best. It engages, connects and responds in just the way that film doesn’t. And in doing this, it achieves something remarkable: it highlights the disconnectedness of our societies and worlds without judgement or reproach, but by simply presenting an alternative way to be.
I could not bring my dear wife to see Floating, and ringing her afterwards, I couldn’t explain what was so wonderful about it. I don’t think I’ve done it justice here, but this is a fleeting moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I suffer amnesia.