At the end of day two of Heads Up Festival, we find Michelle Dee back at Kardomah 94 asking festival goers, ‘Have you any clue what it will be?’ Commissioned by Einkofi and debuting at Heads Up, Is He On the Line? is a new music theatre piece created by British visual artist Jez Dolan and Icelandic composer Ingibjörg Yr Skarphethinsdóttir.
Three overhead projectors and a curved wooden bench sit where the stage once was, four striking looking men, positioned at each corner begin walking through the space. From time to time they check their phones, check out each other, mimicking the act of cruising and using Tindr, then one man begins to sing a repeated refrain in a high tenor.
The notes hang in the air like a prayer. The four voices harmonise so beautifully, the work is like a painterly plainsong, a cross-cultural choral work exchange with two Icelandic singers and two from Hull. As the four sing Jez brushes paint on plastic. A recorded voice recalls Jez’s own awakening, the earliest inklings of sexuality, recollected in the futuristic imagery of a childhood dream.
The sheets under the OHP are further manipulated to create different images, that appear like viewing tundra from the air, or the different striations and imperfections in a cross- section cut in the ice. As Jez adds more layers something that looks a bit like a body emerges, maybe rejoicing, maybe falling, a second image, with more violent mark-making, looks like the body destroyed.
As you watch the performance there is much supposition as to its nature, a sense of confusion over the story being told. The voices now sounding devotional are interspersed with Icelandic texts read out by one of the men. There is something about the importance of the mountain, the mountain having a name: and by extension the life and lives surrounding it not having a name until one is assigned. Someone later suggests the choice of colour films, cyan, yellow, magenta and black, might create the white of the ice, purity maybe or even a thing erased.
The appearance of the Icelandic words on the OHP such as Lezpa, Sodo, Trukalessa, Epalhomi leave little room for ambiguity some if not all are clearly homophobic slurs. Afterwards I spoke with Jez Dolan, to understand more about the work. He explained that after thinking about the number of homophobic slurs we have in the U.K. he decided to ask Icelanders to share with him the ones from their language. The surprising thing was he found very few, with some folk reluctant to say them and some who just didn’t know any. I’m thinking if a person doesn’t have a name, even a nasty one, what does it do to their sense of self: it is better to be spoken unkindly to, then not be spoken to at all surely? I learn Trukalessa is ‘truck lesbian’ dare I say not the most hateful description and Epalhomi is the name of an upmarket furniture store frequented by queens… again not all that venomous.
A group of curious audience members gather around me as Jez tells an Icelandic folklore tale about a young boy sick in bed, while downstairs everyone feasts on fish. The next morning all the folk downstairs are found dead slumped over the tureens of fish stew. The boy survives, having been upstairs ill in bed he never touched the fish.
The fish in question is known as the backwards-finned trout, one of the more colourful homophobic slurs Jez came across in his research, similar omen stories surround the hairy brown trout which is often linked to a bad catch.
The backwards-finned trout is described as being queer, backwards and poisonous: the ultimate triple threat.