Everything by my side

por Ng Yi-Sheng

Everything by My Side, by Fernando Rubio

By Ng Yi-Sheng

There's something quite lurid about the premise of this show. Sure, Rubio claims it's inspired by a dream of a childhood story remembered after 25 years of forgetfulness. But you describe the prospect of jumping into bed with one of an array of women for ten minutes, it's easy to make lurid jokes about bordellos and harems: wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

So I'd honestly thought the actresses of the show would be in a very vulnerable state.

And maybe that's true. But as it turned out, one feels pretty damn exposed and vulnerable as an audience member, too.

The whole thing's arranged with almost bureaucratic efficiency. You turn up at the National Gallery 30 minutes before your scheduled slot, and festival ambassadors guide you towards the fourth floor, where your registration is confirmed and you're given a number and told to wait your turn.

We line up in batches of ten and divested of our bags and cellphones. There are instructions to ensure that we enter in an orderly fashion and don’t rabak the actresses.

So we’re forced to chat awkwardly with each other as we wait. As we peer across the barrier and see the bent line of beds (not a circle like in the advertising) where the actresses and audience members lie, facing one another like inverted commas, seemingly silent, beneath the sunlit glass roof, beside the colonial rotunda…

And then the guests begin to leave, and the women sit up. When they’re all gone, they lie down once more.

And we’re told to enter.

It’s a really lovely setting, so it’s rather like we’re in a temple. Invited to engage in a magical ritual.

Horizontal priestesses.

We go to our assigned beds. Mine was number seven, Victoria Pereira from Uruguay. (Usually, a performance of this work features seven actresses from the same country; this time we had ten actresses from ten different nations.)

Victoria looked very young and delicate when I was standing up, but once I took off my shoes and lay down to face her, I could see her face had the fine lines of middle age, which gave her beauty an entirely different dimension. It was difficult to meet her eyes, which were large and grey, though her skin was darker than mine. I adjusted the level of my head on the pillow until I felt I was just beneath her, which felt appropriate, as if I’d purchased a front row seat in a theatre…

And then she spoke.

And I can’t remember what her opening lines were. There was a story about Rubio’s dream: taking me into a vision of myself as a child, waking up in a car with my parents gone, and then of great success, everyone by my side, breathing in energy, and then of everything taken from me…

I debated with some audience members later if there was a linear plot. If these visions the actresses spoke of connected up to form a coherent story. I said no, one girl said yes, one boy said he was so terrified he started laughing and shook the bed.

And I get why he was terrified. Because I do remember the effect of Victoria’s gaze: examining my face, smiling, as if she’d bought the ticket to see me. And her command: telling me to close my eyes, and me being uncertain if I should follow instructions, because this might merely be a feature in her story. And opening them to see she a teardrop had collected in the orbit of her right eye, and was spilling over the bridge of her nose into the sheets…

And her hand on my arm, which alarmed me because I thought we were forbidden from touching. Turns out the rule only applies to us, not the actresses.

And the closing words we’d been told about. “I see you soon.” A split-second before I realised that our ten minutes of connection were up, and I had to awkwardly rise and fumble myself into my shoes and leave.

Everything By My Side throws you off guard. It’s not just about the one-to-one performance—lots of productions have featured this—it’s about the posture you adopt, of utter intimacy, with a stranger.

It puts you into an altered state, like meditation. And it’s a shared space—that teardrop is a wonder. Can these women make themselves weep a hundred times a day? Or do they discreetly apply Eye-Mo when our eyes are shut?

I do wish I’d been able to take up the offer of “I see you soon”, because I only experienced the show with Victoria. The other women weren’t just of other nationalities: they were of different ages as well, with different experiences of performing this role in other lands (except for Margaret Chan from Singapore and Tarja Feinula from Finland).

I saw Victoria as a motherly figure. But I’m a youngish gay man—a straight/bi man or a queer woman might have seen her a lover; an older person as a daughter. And maybe another would have perceived her as a sister? A twin?

And what it’s been like for these women? If I’d been lulled into a meditative state, what does it mean for each actress, to care for each person who enters her bed to the point of weeping? Is the emotional labour exhausting? (Cf. the global diasporas of female migrant workers, paid for acts of love, from cleaning to nursing to sex.)

Or is the act of repetition meditative as well?

Interestingly, Fernando Rubio’s wife was one of the actresses involved—I believe she’s Laura Limp from Brazil. The couple have also brought along their child. I joked that usually the concept of a director’s baby was just a metaphor. Rubio's assistant, Nanda Bella, said he was crying for his mother, who was performing.

And it’s only now I’m connecting a few dots.

Everything By Your Side turns you into the director’s baby. Far more than the audience of a proscenium theatre, you’re in the palm of his hand, all these actresses your mothers for all of ten minutes…

We don’t exactly become part of a family. There are no obligations and duties here; no ties.

But we do experience love, made all the more precious for its brevity. No cavalier wham-bam here.

It is love that makes us this vulnerable.