Wilkie Branson’s TOM is a brave and inspiring visual leap of the imagination, says our arts contributor Shirley Ahura.
Set in the hinterland between nature and modernity, Wilkie Branson’s TOM embarks on a journey of real and relatable existential angst. Who is TOM? Where has he come from, where is he going and what will he leave behind in the process? This one-man quest for self (re)discovery is captured in an ambitious dance-for-camera installation that presents visual storytelling through a multi-focal lens of digital animation, design and dance.
Good things, it would seem, most definitely come in threes, as evidenced in one of the most impressive parts of the production: the use of projection mapping. The entirety of TOM is projected onto, and at times alternated between, three successively layered identical screens, creating a spatially augmented reality for viewers. The technique is deftly and successfully applied. It adds extra dimensions to scenic routes, deploys optical illusions in the most familiar of settings, and projects notions of movement onto otherwise static objects. The effect is at once visually unsettling and stunning, with the landscaping of the hinterland scenes coming alive.
Ushering in the extra VFX factor is the production’s equally prevalent use of animation. For the gamers out there, TOM is a definite crowd pleaser. There were moments where you sensed yourself in the midst of an RPG such as Assassin’s Creed, only this time, instead of Ezio roaming the dark and dingy enclaves of Renaissance Italy, it’s our very own protagonist, TOM. Except, less Venice to Monteriggioni and more London to Aberystwyth. But who is TOM really?
Identity, or the crisis thereof, is a major theme throughout the production, and it plays out most vividly in the leitmotif of destination. The journey for self-discovery is personified by a driverless train, powered almost entirely by fate, destination unknown. Unlike our beleaguered yet beloved Southern Railway, this train comes when you are in need of it most. Bound for wherever he must go, it is summoned much less by TOM than it is by his quest for selfhood.
At each instance of its nameless trajectory forwards, the train sheds an outer shell of its identity, undergoing a three-way (our magic number returns) transformation each time. A rickety streetcar that would make Tennessee Williams proud transforms before our eyes into a sleeker, more modernised locomotive model. In the final instalment of this modern evolution of public transport, we see an old friend: the deep-level Tube model that has become emblematic of London’s transportation system. The attention so clearly paid to the modelling details demonstrates another innovative take; all of the set design that you see, from the landscapes to the buildings and train models, has been made by Branson himself. Over a period of 9 months, models were handcrafted and digitised using a technique called photogrammetry, which basically devises realistic 3-D scenes out of reality capture and enhanced VFX technology. Got that? Good.
An evasive figure from the very outset, who is only named at the very end, TOM represents the ‘every’ in everyone. In a typical rush hour scene, everyday people go about their everyday lives. Jacketed. Clad in heels and a skirt. Dressed in suit and tie. TOM quite literally characterises them all. Whilst the viewer’s attention is, on a surface level, drawn to the deafening monotony of urban life, the more sinister undertones of this messaging hint at the danger of the hive mind. As hordes of bodies disappear from view at the escalator’s edge, everyday people appear to ‘jump off’ the proverbial ledge en masse, like lemmings in mythically true form, only to reappear seconds later and continue their commute through the subterraneous networks of the city – a visual that is created thanks to the clever optical tricks mentioned earlier. The viewer is made all too aware of the banality of it all, as well as an increasingly apparent sense of isolation: this is modernity at its breaking point.
The use of place and setting gives way to another central theme in the installation – nature versus modernity. Branson’s production plays with the idea of ‘negative space’, which is exhibited in several locations: the underground cave, which in undergoing modernity is traded for the Tube and the abandoned home that echoes the earlier desolation of the warehouse. These spaces that TOM finds himself in represent the void, the nothingness, the zone of non-being that threatens to swallow him whole.
The hinterland as a focal geographical locale is also an interesting choice thematically. Hinterland, a German word by origin, literally translates as ‘the land behind’ or ‘in the back of’. The hinterland is the natural non-urbanized area, remote from all urban areas, lying beyond the corporate margins of the metropolitan centre. The hinterland is juxtaposed with the concrete jungle, and by some interesting twist of fate, is also contingent on it. Both worlds remain inextricably linked and mutually dependent for each other’s survival.
The image of the moving train, crossing and re-crossing the thresholds of modernity and nature, of the mundane and the sublime, reinforces their separateness. However, even within this demarcation, there are wonderful slippages that occur. One of the most beautiful visuals created is that of the solitary train transporting TOM across what seems like an endless railway track – a track completely surrounded by a deluge of water. Is this nature’s revenge? Modernity is quite vividly at the mercy of the natural world. Rarely are the two worlds seen in such close quarters, and a very real threat (we need only look around at our environment to understand this reference) is posed at the point of their collision. That the viewer is unsure whether the railway track presides over the waters, or remains at risk of full submersion leaves a lingering sense of ambiguity, one which confronts and connects us with something greater, taking us beyond ourselves and our understanding of human nature.
The loss of one world to another – a Paradise Lost of epic proportions – manifests in the production as a loss of innocence, which is classically reincarnated as a child. Mourning a lost childhood is perhaps one of the most poignant themes, and reveals some of TOM’s most tender moments. The child’s journey is also noteworthy – when it is first introduced, TOM abandons the child on the platform. In a separate scene, the child is seen to be ‘rescued’ from the railway track by one of TOM’s clones (an ‘everyday person’), only to be saved once more from a cliff edge in a valiant attempt made by the real TOM. At each instance the child is endangered, protected and sought after. However, it is the child that ultimately saves itself.
Was it all a dream? Or merely a corrupted memory sequence? In the final scene, TOM returns to a house full of memories. A small television set projects childhood clips. It is here that he is once again reunited with the child, in a playful game of copycat. It’s a scene that’s about 100 times lighter to what we’ve been subjected to over the past 40 minutes or so.
At the scene’s soul-stirring peak, the following words can be made out over the backing track: ‘I can see his face longing for that better place’. ‘But it’s too late’ the lyrics bemoan, ‘I am not the same as before, and he knows it’. The scene fades to black, with the single word ‘TOM’ gradually superimposing in white font. Deafening silence. The audience sits and contemplates. A room full of everyday people, attempting to revisit the lasting vestiges of what was once the apex of innocence (or height of oblivion, depending on how full or empty you view the cup), their inner child. United by this unspoken desire to relocate, perhaps recalibrate, and ‘find’ themselves again, this is indeed a moment for viewers to entertain the idea of reverting to a previous, primordial form.
Yet, as always, out of the darkness comes light. The dance pieces intertwined in the production were perhaps most indicative of this fact. Dance as a device was empowering and uplifting, and conveyed spirit. There was power, not only in numbers but also in rhythm, with the scene of the simulated commuter population performing choreography standing out as the most successful expressions of the art form. The incorporation of hip-hop dance, in particular the style of b-boying, however was where the production fell short. Overstated at best, TOM as a storytelling exercise perhaps invoked less the ‘language’ of the hip-hop style and more an utterance. Whilst one could see a nod to breakdancing influences in some places, it was for the most part, lost in many others. As a hip-hop dancer, any production laying claim to the art form must do so with rigour and authenticity, but also innovation and an unrelenting will to break boundaries. Where TOM excelled in exhibiting the latter, it appears it may have rescinded on its commitment to the former.
Wilkie Branson’s TOM signals a bold venture into questions of identity, humanity, ethics and aesthetics. In attempting to provide answers, Branson deliberately disrupts the ways in which we the viewers process images. In an attempt to break away from the cult of CGI that is now firmly here to stay, Branson does away with the household format. Disturbing the contemporary in almost disorienting fashion, TOM transcends the boundaries of the digital through the artisan, and surpasses the limits of modernism through the imagination.
Wilkie Branson’s Tom had its world premiere at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, from the 15 to the 17 November 2018. Click here for more information on TOM and here to view more of Branson’s work.