Review: Harlow Playhouse: Victor Esses: The Death and Life of All of Us

Entertainment / Sat 9th Mar 2024 at 09:39am

Review: Harlow Playhouse: Victor Esses: The Death & Life Of All Of Us

By Ian Beckett

I FIRST first saw Victor Esses in Theatre 2 at Harlow Playhouse in September 2021, when he presented the autobiographical performance-art piece ‘Where to Belong’ in which he explored and invited the audience to reflect upon how we find our place in a complex world of identities, where it is not always easy to accept who you are, let alone be accepted by others.

Victor describes himself as, among other things, a Jewish-Lebanese-Latinx queer performance artist and “The Death and Life of All of Us” continues to explore identity but very much from the perspective of others. Perspective was a word that kept coming to me during the hour-long performance.

Upon entering the performance space, the audience discover Victor wearing a headlamp that moves beams of light of varying degrees of intensity across a neutral back drop. From my perspective this gave the suggestion of the passage of time, clouds drift by, the sun rises and sets, a dazzling moon dominates the sky. It suggests we are joining a story that begun a while ago and we soon learn that it did.

At the age 19, Victor found his long-lost great-aunt Marcelle in Rome. She had moved from Judaism to Christianity, from Lebanon to Italy, married a diplomat, changed her name, and become the Social President of an exceptionally large golf club. Aunt Marcelle is a strong, independent-minded woman, who drew people to her from all levels of society, but carefully chose those with whom she shared trust, friendship, and affection. A tough lady who will not be bullied or cajoled by anyone. 

When Victor met Aunt Marcelle, he became fascinated by her strength, her resilience, and her ability to conform and rebel simultaneously, and he became inspired to make a documentary about her life. Twenty years later, he still hasn’t finished that project, and it forms the backbone of this performance. Victor has an abundance of footage of Marcelle freely discussing her life and her passions but as things unfold it becomes clear that there are some stories yet untold, some questions unanswered, and intriguingly some secrets that may be destined to remain hidden.

With a mixture of projected and narrated storytelling, edited highlights of Victor’s videos, and live music provided by composer, sound designer and guitarist Enrico Aurigemma, the audience learn about Marcelle and in turn learn about Victor, their relationship with each other and their relationship with the world. This was an abundance of perspectives. Victor’s relaxed conversational style of delivery allowed him to seamlessly engage the audience a game of “Never Have I Ever” – he asks us by way of a warm-up “Have you ever been to Harlow Railway Station?”. “Yes” replied the audience, with one punter pipping up “Sadly”, Victor replying “I heard that”. 

“Have you ever thrown porn magazines from the 28th floor of an apartment block?” is a question that hangs in the air until later Victor confesses that this was how he disposed on gay porn during his teenage years.

As the journey continues, we feel the passage of time, Victor captures and conveys events and changing attitudes and behaviours; we are exposed to different temperaments, moods, and emotions through words, music, video and physicality’s – punctuated with the emphasised words “Marcelle wanted you to know that”. 

We are asked if we have ever felt “lonely, lost, and unsupported” – Yes; have we ever “embarked on a different path only to find ourselves back where we started?” – Yes, this is how Victor connects with us. Interwoven with snippets of the life of a wise, worldly and cultured woman, we partake in a blend of her story, his story, history, our own stories, and the stories of others. The audience were asked to consider whether our stories will be true and whether they will matter.

“The Death & Life of All of Us “was a funny, thought-provoking exploration of identity, place – both personal as well as geographical, strengths and weaknesses, and how our connections to, and understanding of, the past informs our present and our future. Sadly, the audience was painfully small for this tremendous piece of performance art. However, the engagement and applause were a testament to how much it was appreciated, and thanks should go to the Arts Council and Harlow Playhouse for encouraging the performer and the audience to grapple with something both culturally challenging and enriching.

As the performance nears its end, we see Victor donning a fez and dancing at a gay club. The music stops but Victor keeps on dancing. Metaphorically and wordlessly, it seemed as if he was saying “This is me. And if I can be me, you can be you”. It is both an invitation and a challenge that we are left to reflect upon. Victor wanted you to know that.

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