That Night Follows Day: far more than child's play

Real kids in That Night Follows Day; photo: Tim Matheson

For the second production in a row, the thought “maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing this show” crossed my mind. But for very different reasons. Last time, the trust required to take a leap of faith with an artist was never created for me. This is not an issue with James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto of "Theatre Replacement": I trust these guys implicitly. Their work is always thoughtful and challenging and never descends into obscurity or randomness. I’ll go anywhere with them. *That Night Follows Day* is no different. Well, it is different in one important regard, they are working on someone else’s script, by Tim Etchells of the UK’s "Forced Entertainment": (who were here a couple of PuSh’s ago).

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy *That Night Follows Day* – I did very much. This production, part of the "PuSh Festival": and the English-language premiere of the script, is charming and unique. The text is performed by 17 young performers, ranging from the ages of 8 – 14. They are phenomenal and beautiful. Their individuality is captivating – which the text is able to highlight because it is in a real sense “anti-performative”. The production is stylish. A large swing-set runs practically the entire length of the performance space. The children appear, one by one, into the space prior to the pre-show announcements. I imagine this was meant to break down the notion of performance or “show”. The children sit on the swings or on the ground or climb up the frame of the swings and look at us looking at them – and they whisper, perhaps indicating the secret world of children. Then, after the announcements are finished, they come forward, stand in one long line, stare at us – in a very prolonged, "Tim Crouch": manner – and then, in unison start listing the impacts that “you” (ie the audience and, more specifically, their parents) have on shaping their world. Like some Greek chorus equating the audience to gods, they list such reveals as “You feed us. You dress us. You watch us when we’re sleeping.” The listing – which is really like an extended poem – carries on for the entire length of the piece, sometimes with one child, sometimes with groups of eight and sometimes back to the entire group.

The production also addresses – perhaps indirectly – one of the biggest problems in our society. We live in a largely segmented society and children are often invisible (certainly if you live in Vancouver). It was refreshing and revelatory to see children (and a large group of them) on stage in front of us. So, with all this going for it, why do I question whether I should review this show? Well, it’s quite simple: I don’t have children of my own. I will explain further.

*That Night Follows Day* is deceptively tricky. I mentioned earlier the idea of breaking down notions of performance but the thing is *That Night Follows Day* is a carefully crafted piece. Although it purports to explore children’s perceptions – and is performed by children – this is not verbatim theatre; the words we hear are not directly those of children. Although it would seem that Etchells drew on the children he worked with in the original production (and I imagine his own children), the text was still crafted by an adult. This craft can be seen in the way the reveals of the text are ordered, the way for example, “you teach us to believe in God, you tell us that God does not exist” are joined together. In short, this is very much an adult’s understanding of how we shape and influence children’s thoughts and experiences.

I have to take That Night Follows Day at face value. While I admire it as a theatrical experiment, I think there is a flaw in the central thesis, as I understand it: certainly adults influence children but it is far from a one way street. I’ve been around enough children to realize that they appear in this world with a fully formed personality. My sense is that development is as much (if not more) about a child unpacking their personality – their inherent strengths and weakness, their fears and talents - as it is about being influenced by their environment. I’m not saying that Etchells is necessarily saying that children are tabula rasa but he does seem to indicate that they are not particularly active agents in their environment.

I started thinking about this because there were a couple of glaring moments where the children would say things like “you tell me I’m a fucking idiot”, which jolted the audience out of the rather golden enchantment we had fallen into. These moments rang false for me. Certainly all parents say things they regret to their children, but these particular moments were so extreme that they felt unearned and attempts at Oprah like sentimentality. If you’re going to deal with the damaging impact of damaged parents on children, then do it. If not, keep to the more muddled norm that most of us experience, especially in a piece that is blurring the lines between reality and performance.

The promotional material claims that the show provides a new slant on nature/nurture, but I wonder rather if it was actually a very old one. Children are somehow connected to some sort of pure state that adults have lost; we in turn – even from the best of motives – put restrictions and conformity on them. I just can’t accept this contention. Children are more aware than this. From an early age children are capable of negotiating with their parents, articulating demands and expressing joy and anger that is fully their own. It could be argued that Etchells wasn’t interested in that side of the equation – that the work is an exploration of the consequences of a parent’s need to protect, nurture and teach. But for me, personally, I’m not sure it was enough. Something was missing in the dynamic. Of course, if his objective was to get me to think about the thematic content of the show as much as the show itself, then he succeeded.

This brings me back to my original point. I have known lots of children. I actually connect with them quite easily. It’s not unusual for a random child to sit down next to me and start telling me about their day (if only women would do the same thing). But I’ve never had any of my own. I’ve never been responsible for their care, never felt anxious about their health and never had to worry about the influence my foibles would have on them. We also know that parents – whatever the ages of their children – cannot help but feel responsible for the choices their children make (even if the children are “grown up” enough take full responsibility for their actions). So I can’t help but feel that there was a resonance that parents would have felt experiencing *That Night Follows Day* that was missing for me. Hearing things you’ve said to your own child, expressed by a child must be revelatory – but it wasn’t (couldn’t be) for me. I was left admiring the cool sophistication of Theatre Replacement’s take on the text and the delight of spending an hour watching some beautiful, phenomenal children. And, you know, maybe that was enough.

_That Night Follows Day By Tim Etchells; Direction James Long & Maiko Bae Yamamoto; Stage Management Jan Hodgson; Lighting Design John Webber; Set Design James Long; Production Manager/Technical Director Elia Kirby; Production Assistant Jennifer Stewart; Performers Ailish Elisabeth, Margot Berner, Luke McAndless-Davis, Andrew Warner, Garnet Barrett, Jordan Zanni, Rebecca Zanni, Phoebe Conway, Na’ku’set Shepherd Gould, Dexter van der Schyff, Yuki Nakahara, Sofia Newman, David James Wilson, Keita Dueck, Leina Dueck, Elena Anderson Kirby, Kino Roy. For more information go_ "here":

By Andrew Templeton