revew: Billie Collins – Too Much World at Once
Too Much World at Once/
by Billie Collins/
dir Adam Quayle/
design Katie Scott/
sound design Lee Affen/
03 – 11 March 2023//
Children, betray us.
When I was doing my A Levels, I wanted to learn the bass guitar. My mum made me a promise: I could start learning the bass once my exams were over; we would rent one from a local music shop (which children couldn’t rent from themselves). I did what any teenager would do: I borrowed my friend’s bass guitar, kept it hidden under my bed and only played it when my parents were out of the house. I finished my exams and we rented the guitar and the contract was complete. My mum never found out about the one I hid under my bed.
What’s that story about? Why bother telling you that? It isn’t about the play I’m reviewing. It’s a story about me and my mum and a guitar (two guitars if you’re especially paying attention).
Comic artist Michael DeForge recently posted on his instagram: ‘i will never care about “plot holes” or dialogue being “realistic.” You need your plot to make sense? Grow up’. The point of stories isn’t to find out what happens in them. (The point of a review isn’t to find out whether I liked the play.) A lot of the time I wish I knew less what happened in a story, especially when I’m in a theatre. I want stories to be an experience, I want to remember the way it was told, I want to learn something new about my place in the world because of where I was sitting one evening and how it made me feel. I don’t care about specific story beats – that won’t be what I tell my mates about later on.
DeForge was posting about the ‘eco horror’ films of M Night Shyamalan, which for DeForge contain ‘some of the most disorienting, bewildering images out there’. If I’m talking to you about a play which excited me, I will not be telling you about how old the baby was, or in which piece of German woodland it was set. I will tell you that it fucked me up. If I tell you about my favourite Michael DeForge comic (My Sister Dropped Dead from the Heat), I will tell you it has the energy of scrawled on a sweaty napkin with mascara, that reading it feels like coffee has replaced my blood. I’ll trust you to understand what it’s ‘about’ when you read it yourself.
‘Understanding’ what it’s ‘about’ here means: deciding what it means to you. I guess. Stories are ‘about’ more things than those which exist in the script and on the stage for you to point at. Stories are ‘about’ the things which circle their edges too.
It is, for example, to do a disservice to say that Billie Collins’s Too Much World at Once is a play about the environment when it is a play about teenagers lying, family members hiding from each other, children desperately grasping at any form of love they can swallow. The climate has not created any of these things. Sure the environment and the climate are factors in the story, there are multiple comorbidities chewing at each other, but the massacre of the planet is a fact of the world we live in and I think to relegate it to the category of ‘subject of a story’ would feel like pretending it is fiction. The environment is a cruel, poisoned force among many such forces: the family; depression; anxiety; children. Climate change is real and Too Much World at Once is about climate change in the same way The Cherry Orchard is about real estate.
Noble’s world is untenable: he is not trusted by his mum, Fiona; school is shit and the kids are horrible; Ellis is clingy because he doesn’t have any friends. Noble writes poetry which he shares with no one because he is ashamed and uncomfortable with his own existence (read: he is a teenager). Because the world around him is unbearable, he stays out of the house as late as possible, he avoids conversation, he sleeps in his absent sister’s bedroom, he writes his poetry and he transforms into a bird. Noble isn’t making decisions; the world forces him into these behaviours. There are no other options: the state of being a teenage boy is a class position, it is forced upon him and it destroys his ability to build relationships with other people (penned into their own roles as much as he is).
The only survivable option is to make of his body a poem. When Noble transforms into a bird he enters into a new category which has not existed before. He is liberated because his new body cannot be understood by the old logic. When he transforms into a bird he joins thousands upon thousands of other strangers whose bodies have been forced into the same shape as his. He knows nothing of them, other than they are in some way like him; they must be like him, because they have taken the same path he has. Noble transforming into a bird suddenly gives him a greater class consciousness than he has ever had access to. Once he has transformed into a bird, he is finally able to speak to Ellis as a peer who, although grossly clingy and pathetic to him, is an ally on class grounds. Ellis helps shelter him, supports his forays into poetry, sees him as a confidante and a friend and not just a relation he is bound to.
Noble’s transformation in Too Much World at Once is an argument for a revolutionary approach to social interactions. Here is a play about the disintegration of the family form, which demands we imagine better than blind biological loyalty. Ellis lies to Fiona so easily, despite her kindness to him, despite her being Noble’s mother, because the lie comes from a class alliance – his deception allows Noble to develop his own sense of himself outside the position of ‘son’ and ‘brother’. In answer to the restrictions of the role forced upon him, the only solution is revolution; evolution. Become a bird. Become thousands of birds. A revolutionary force, a swarm.
Too Much World at Once is not a coming of age story. It is not a play about climate change. It is possible to turn into a bird and it is important for theatre to contain impossible things. Please understand the necessity of transformation. Please try to imagine the world anew.
OR: Too Much World at Once is a play about war.
I describe Noble’s step outside his role as ‘son’, ‘brother’ as liberation. But Ellis is crushed by his existence outside of those positions. He cannot bring himself to call his mum ‘mum’ and uses her first name. He lingers around Noble’s mum because she represents a relationship he has no access to at home. His dad is an active murderer – a drone pilot; he kills on behalf of the state and his job is cloaked in the illusion of flying and the illusion of bravery. War is a hyperobject everyone is inside of but cannot look directly at – like their obligatory family relationships – like climate change. Ellis is desperate for a relationship with his murderer father – he does not reject mothers, only his own specifically. He yearns for a model of family which matches the one in his head. For him, being gay is unsafe – it alienates him from the world around him as Noble is alienated. He is inside of something he can’t see his place in – he longs for what he is bound by to take a different form.
The country I live in despises children – it hates that we cannot put them to work in the mills and it is built on the labour of other people’s children far away. It hates when children have things, it hates when children ask for things, it hates when children do not do as they are told. Too Much World at Once is a play in which children refuse to participate. It’s shocking to think that a child would hide another runaway child in a barn, but children are shocking. Children are inconsistent and always growing. Children are very good at revolt. And in this case, the children played by adult actors are a thought experiment; the only way we might survive the crushing force around us is to build our own families, to transform ourselves and lie to those who would stop us.
The children betray the adults in this play all the time – they make a joke of their trust because their trust has no foundation. Fiona’s house is crumbling and she refuses to do anything about it. Her boy transforms from one thing into another and back again. The children are not trusted and so they cannot be trusted. Too Much World at Once is about war; it is about the soft horror of not being treated as a person, and the liberation of making your own definition of what a ‘person’ is.
‘There must have been hundreds of us. Thousands, even? My sister dropped dead from the heat. The line of us stretched back far enough that it was impossible to count all the dogs.’
– Michael DeForge, My Sister Dropped Dead from the Heat