Civilisation review – an audacious study of everyday heartbreak

Complex, raw and insensibly smart, Civilisation is a charged study of the absurdity of grief and intrusion. Quietly audacious in form and timing, this strange and beautiful piece produced by Antler refuses to abide by the normal rules of storytelling. It makes mundanity electric.

A young woman played by Sophie Steer returns from her partner’s funeral and performs ordinary actions in the nonsensical way you do when no one’s watching. Under Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s astute direction, nothing is of note and everything is noticed. The playful staging is constantly surprising, and there’s a small thrill in watching Steer do things you can’t fake on stage, such as frying eggs or playing a high-stakes game of Bop It. It’s intoxicating to watch even as she mindlessly stares at her laptop while Dragon’s Den plays to unlistening ears.

Steer’s character is oblivious to the three dancers – James Olivo, Emily Thompson-Smith and Alethia Antonia – who invade her space. They move wildly to music we hear only some of the time; the moments of silence are like held breath.

Choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple steals Steer’s actions – the Marie Kondo method of folding, the jiggle of frying the eggs – and mutates them into complex, balletic movements. Threading through her home, the dancers echo today’s constant distractions: the half-watched TV shows, the unreplied-to texts, the short attention spans, the ignored letters, the unhealthy investment in strangers’ lives.

Civilisation simultaneously evokes the feeling of loneliness and never being able to be truly alone. We don’t fully understand the link between the two worlds, but the strange symbiosis of dramatic realism and contemporary dance creates an intimate, alien portrait of loss and isolation. I could watch for ever.

At Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh, until 25 August.

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