Kirkos Ensemble at the DCC Incubation Space, James Joyce St., Dublin, on 6 December 2019

Winning the Dublin City Council Incubation Space award has given Kirkos the use of a ground-floor space in the north inner city. It’s a plain, decent-sized room with white walls, suggesting a studio for visual artists, but tonight it’s set up with sound and lighting, three rows of seats, piano, a partition of heavy cloth strung across most of the middle, and more seating on the other side with a place set for a solo cello. The entire place is, in effect, the set—we are now in ‘the buffer zone’, the threshold between two states of being or, more prosaically, two states. As an audience member, one sits on one side or the other, and can only see half of the action.

Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides based this 2004 work (getting its second production here) on his experience of the UN-controlled buffer zone between northern and southern Cyprus and, with walls, borders, and questions of free movement now dominating the headlines, it has become even more topical. As a work of music theatre, The Buffer Zone is simple: the voice (Tom Roseingrave) is that of a UN soldier, observing from his point, reporting any movement and turning back trespassers.

He can cross from one side to the other and maintains the zone’s integrity. The two musicians (Billy O’Brien (piano) and Yseult Cooper Stockdale (cello)) are placed on either side of the partition, and their music is supplemented by an audio-feed that mixes natural field recordings (including bird-song) with sounds of military technology, fragments of recorded interviews and exchanges, and Roseingrave’s voice-over. We spend an hour in the head of a soldier as he fights boredom, exercises his physical and technical expertise, and does his job, and this is reinforced by the video projected onto the partition, which is largely devoted to him or what he sees.

The idea of ‘performance’ is stripped back to nearly nothing. Despite the complexity of the sound-world, including the music played and sung—O’Brien and Stockdale are superbly clear and precise in their roles—the understated or, indeed, untrained physicality of Roseingrave reflects the antitheatricality of experimental performance art. As well as evoking a specific sense of place, space and time, by opening up the idea of any borderland as a site of artificial separation, The Buffer Zone becomes like a work of video art brought to strange life. The very question of mediation, or bringing the unknown to the attention of those watching and listening, is one of the oldest ideas in theatre, if not its point of origin, with the performer as go-between, playing someone else for the audience’s benefit. Now, it is as if the model is turned around and made problematic, with the self-conscious non-actor, ‘the voice’ standing instead for a denial of presence and the end of imagination.

The effect is meditative and absorbing. By avoiding all pretence of spectacle, this work locates a calm irony. The blandness of the soldier’s administrative role, screening out all other voices bar the birds, insects, and trickling water on the sound-track, is emptying, creating a vision of a space completely unpeopled. This is a work for our time if ever there was one.

Yannis Kyriakides: The Buffer Zone
Artistic Director: Sebastian Adams; Video Design: Robert Coleman
Tom Roseingrave (Voice); Yseult Cooper Stockdale (Cello); Billy O’Brien (Piano)

Images by Miriam Kaczor