Independent on Sunday Review Without Trace

Without Trace

Jenny Gilbert

Independent on Sunday, 12 March 2000

a work of advanced sensibility

Mark Murphy of the dance company V-TOL has a surer hand with film, layering it with live action and narrative with increasing sophistication. His latest effort, Without Trace, succeeds largely because its various media pull unerringly in one direction; their aim: to broaden and clarify the narrative. This is the story of Beth, who goes AWOL one afternoon, having told her partner, Jim, she’s gone out shopping. Banal? Of course: life is.

Murphy’s cleverness is in showing multiple versions of an event, or reactions to that event, or flaky memories of it, with subtly different emphases. A pair of on-stage actors speak the thoughts of Beth and Jim and Beth’s best friend, standing by while their dance-counterparts thrash out their less articulate feelings. A plethora of screens – one of them a great, curved backcloth – track scenes from individual’s standpoints, sometimes superimposing as many as five layers of action at once.

Murphy’s control over this potential mess of spaghetti is masterly, especially in the way stage and celluloid figures mesh with a broader landscape. We see Beth on stage, dancing out her desire to escape her present life, and behind, on the big screen, Beth hitch-hiking in desolate fenland. On another, she dabbles her toes in the sea, while the narrator speaks the words in her head, and an on-stage band crashes through Graham Cunnington’s expressionist rock score.

The choreography is a touch thin – Murphy more or less abandons the “Vertical Take-off and Landing” of the company’s name, which is a shame – but its muscular dodges and tender cradlings certainly plug a verbal gap. It was bold to kill off the central character halfway through, but Murphy justifies this by giving some of his best directorial insights on the processes of grief. Personally speaking, I was rattled by the crash scene. Did it have to be so gory? Otherwise, though, Without Trace is a work of advanced sensibility.