Sunday, February 24, 2008

Meh, just some reviews

Yeah, uh, forgive the uncharacteristically lacklustre post title. Just doing a little Clinton camp shuffle to downplay expectations, now that it seems I am being worshipped as a god. ...Weeeeelll, these things happen. (*pitch-shifts voice down an octave*)

Not much to report, except that I've made a few updates to the blogroll and links list to your right (special commendatory rosette goes to Michael Buitron's wildly smart Leap Into the Void), and flagged up a few upcoming dates on which I will be descending from Olympus to, like, read at the Klinker in Stoke Newington and stuff.

OK, here's what I thought of some shows I saw. Enjoy. Or, whatever. Endure. If you can. If not, there's always Fancy Pants Adventures.

Jerome Bel: Showtime 1994-2005
Sadlers Wells

Whenever retrospective seasons are mounted, they're often described as 'overdue', sometimes 'long overdue'. I mention this only because one of the great things about this survey of theatre works by the French performance maker Jerome Bel was how precisely 'due' it seemed, how timely. Bel may be only in early mid-career but this account of his work comes at just the right moment, both in terms of the development of (this phase of) his own creative practice and in relation to his burgeoning significance and widening influence on the language and the conceptual underwriting of a whole tendency of European and British work. As I said when I posted last November in anticipation of this season, frustratingly I was compelled to be out of town for the middle weekend, which featured some key works including what has come to be seen as perhaps Bel's signature piece, The Show Must Go On. However, as the programme across its three weeks was chronologically organized, the pieces I was able to see are from each end of the decade spanned by the season, and this in part was one of the most interesting aspects of the experience I had.

The last time I wrote about Bel here, I described him as "Frenchest living person". Facetious, of course (though there's some mild truth in it: even at 43, he really could still be one of the schoolboy gang-members in Goscinny & Sempe's Le Petit Nicolas...), but I can at least unpack what I mean partly in terms of the work. It is more interested in ideas than feelings. It wants to display and consider signs, not give vent to (or rise to) emotions. Its humour is detached, logical, bureaucratic even, rather than effusive or chaotic: it is about not intervening, about throwing attention away. It is surfacey, but not superficial; languagey but not literary. In the earlier works particularly, I find myself thinking a lot about the OuLiPo, about the likes of Queneau and Perec for whom the phantom authority of the system and the machine are more interesting and ultimately more revealing about human relation and response than are expressionism and the jaggedness of high modernism. (I had thought there was an official OuDaPo as part of OuXPo but I'm unable to discover whether that's true.) Play is serious, a philosophical engagement, a political crucible.

It's the earliest section of the earliest work here, Nom Donne par l'Auteur, which most obviously exemplifies these characteristics. Bel and collaborator Frederic Seguette bring a small number of objects -- football, hairdryer, table salt, torch, vacuum cleaner, dictionary, and so on; and themselves; and four large capital letters, N, O, S, E, with which to mark compass points -- out on to the stage. In the brilliantly successful first section, sitting opposite each other, the two performers each hold up one object, placing them together in a temporary and provisional pair, and then put them down again and move to another combination. Simple as that. As one 'reads' each pair, making sense of the relationships that are implied -- which may be very formal or abstract at one moment, much more instrumental or free-associative the next -- one starts to become enthralledly aware of the immensely complex mesh of systems in which each object participates, the vast number of categories by which each may be classified and reconstrued. The exercise quickly becomes funny not merely because it is absurd but because it is revelatory and delightful -- in other words, it is not in denial of meaning but in awe of the uncontainable proliferation of meaning -- and the deadpan presentation finds a beautifully supple tension between mock-seriousness and actual seriousness. A similar exercise occurs in 'Dimensions of Dialogue', one of Jan Svankmajer's greatest animated shorts: but Bel makes it more spacious and less mordant. This sequence gives way to others that develop the same ideas more fully, more freely, but never, to my mind, quite so effectively. There is certainly a choreographer's eye for the dynamics of implicit movement within forms, and a highly restrained and impacted wit, in evidence throughout; but the more elaborate it becomes, the less it entertains -- the less, in other words, it holds us together. At a couple of puzzling points there is some appallingly flat-footed (deliberately so, I assume) physical comedy, like a novice's first pass at Slapstick for Dummies. The piece is at its best when the performers are readiest to present themselves simply as other objects in an array that constantly twirls before us like a mobile over an infant's cot. It's when the objects themselves are the actors -- as in Fischli & Weiss's A Quiet Afternoon and Der Lauf der Dinge -- that the unthinkable complexity of human creativity is most appealingly signalled.

Nom Donne par l'Auteur is hardly sumptuous in its staged world, but Jerome Bel, from the following year, pursues Bel's desire for a kind of tabula rasa to an even more radical set of resources. Three performers, naked (and, ultimately, a fourth, clothed); one light onstage; the back wall; a small CD player; a chalk and a lipstick; and, unless I'm forgetting something, that's all. Bel having explained subsequently how this piece arises from an attempt to answer, honestly and rigorously, what are the necessary components for a dance piece to take place, the most startling part of his apparatus is exactly not his use of nudity, which is absolutely correct (and on which, needless to say, much of the banal notoriety of this piece rests), but rather the two writing implements. More or less the first act that happens in the piece is the chalking on the back wall of the names of the participants, starting with THOMAS EDISON (who kindly contributed the electric light) and STRAVINSKY, IGOR (who composed The Rite of Spring, which plays very quietly and feebly in the background throughout much of the piece) and continuing with the names of the performers; the lipstick is used to make marks and write words on the performers' bodies. Initially these written elements seem puzzling -- how can they be considered even arguably fundamental to an act of dance? But it seems to me what they actually do is stand in, at a slight remove but not quite a metaphor's breadth, for the presence of the audience. Again, it is their reading acts, their willingness to pay a kind of interrogative attention to what Bel is presenting here, and in particular their readiness to allow one reading to be erased and supplanted by another, that allows this piece its vital generativity. So we sit in our seats, imaginatively 'labelling' and identifying what we see; Bel simply wants to meet us in the act of these taxonomic interventions and disrupt them a little: most obviously, though in practice not as stridently as it perhaps sounds, when some of the chalk wall writings are partly rubbed out using the performers' own (freshly produced) urine. In a bravura closing sequence, these erasures eventually reveal the sentence "ERIC CHANTE STING" (that 'Sting' turning out to be why "Stravinsky, Igor" has to be written surname first), at which point, the fourth performer -- Eric -- arrives on-stage and sings all through "Englishman in New York": supremely ludic, charming, possibly slightly disturbing in what it suggests about the power of staged language to create real events.

Two things bug me about Jerome Bel, both of which I am more than prepared to imagine are intended by the director. Firstly, the bulk of the piece is enacted by just two of the performers, a woman (Claire Haenni) and a man (Seguette again); the third, an older, 'overweight' woman, is mostly required to sit or lie on the floor, facing away from the audience, holding the lantern. It struck me as odd and kind of unfortunate that a piece which aimed to create an unusually direct and candid encounter with 'the body', stripped of irrelevant and interferent connotations, should nonetheless re-enact the marginalization -- more or less literally -- of a body that happens to fall into categories that we have habitual trouble looking at: the old and the fat. I desperately don't want to reproduce the kind of huffy commentary that Bel so often attracts -- "I suppose he must be making a point but I didn't get what it was" -- but I would certainly be interested to know what was behind that decision.

Secondly -- and this is a larger issue and more to do with personal taste, I suppose -- it bothers me that so much of Jerome Bel is fixed on a kind of (perfectly gentle and not unhumorous) exploration of the bathos of the unclothed body. Fair enough to want to get away from the idea of the "perfect" (dancer's) body, or from unexamined notions of eroticism or second-hand codes of sensuality. But the slightly disingenuous play here with the imperfections of the body, the contours of fat that can be traced around even these pretty good-looking physiques, the rudimentary 'puppetry of the penis' moments with which Seguette presents us, the fascination with freckles and stray hairs and pot-bellies... this feels like a corrective agenda rather than a balanced account. I certainly wouldn't align myself with those who insist that Jerome Bel isn't dance or is not worth watching (or making in the first place); but I felt from early on that I was yearning for an honest acceptance of a slightly more artful beauty. (Anything that smacked too much of poise was immediately mocked or undermined.) It seems every bit as fundamental to our experience of bodies -- our own or each other's -- that beauty and lyricism and elegance are not merely dubious aspects of some remote and alienating virtuosity; we see them right next to us in our friends, our lovers, our kids, if not in ourselves. Even someone with as disastrous and horrifying a body as mine -- I'm not sure I'd even be allowed to hold the lantern -- knows that it's still capable of expressing joy or tenderness or anger or excitement or sexual desire, in an instant, more readily and more accurately than, say, my writing can. I completely understand why Bel would want to start over from zero, and it's important not only for him but for all of us that in Jerome Bel he does so; nonetheless, it seems to me that a big part of the aesthetic here is not merely confrontation of the unadorned and unconditional body but actually overshooting into a kind of wilful self-denial. I don't mean mere restraint or discipline or an aversion to careless indulgence; I mean a kind of stupefied denial of the variousness of the self as it reveals itself through the body. Which, even as a transitional commitment, seems to me an ideologically problematic strategy, to say the least.

Regrettably (at least in some ways) I don't know what happens in Bel's practice immediately after Jerome Bel wipes the slate clean (albeit with piss); the only other piece I was able to see is the much more recent Pichet Klunchun and Myself. What was good about the big forward leap, I suppose, for me, was being able to see a clear development in the director's aesthetic and philosophy -- like skipping ahead to the last chapter in a book, I suppose, to find out the denouement. What I found was a truly heartening and inspiring advance in which Bel's penchant for candour and transparency and the refusal of performative seclusion is retained, but its articulation is delicate, humane and deeply suggestive. The piece puts the two eponymous artists, the classical Thai dancer Klunchun and Bel himself, on-stage together, seated in chairs mostly, facing each other, discussing their respective practices. For the first hour, Bel interviews Klunchun; for the remaning forty minutes, Klunchun asks questions of Bel. Klunchun demonstrates different aspects of Khon, the classical form to which he has dedicated his working life; he teaches Bel a little. Bel demonstrates some of his signature moves to Klunchun: the first two -- standing still, watching the audience; and essaying the sort of vague, half-hearted, rooted-to-the-spot handbag dancing that the participants in The Show Must Go On are inclined towards -- are utterly baffling and disappointing to Klunchun; the third, in which Bel slowly "dies" to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly", reminds him of his own mother's death, and moves and touches him in a quite unexpected way.

It is difficult to say why this piece is so successful and so beautiful, though that in itself is probably one of the reasons. There is much to enjoy in both the mutual incomprehension and the odd details that nonetheless connect these two practices; Klunchun's Khon demonstrations are awesomely beautiful (particularly in a brief vignette where he portrays a woman receiving notice of the death of her husband, with unbelievable economy and poise), and the explanatory commentary is full of interesting stuff; it is great also to hear Bel talking in such down-to-earth terms about the theoretical base of different aspects of his practice. (Particularly great given that I completely forgot about the pre-performance talk that Bel was giving and for which I had diligently booked.) His account of why he refuses to refund money to disappointed audiences is the most concise and compelling defence of, and argument for, genuinely experimental theatre that I've ever heard. It is slightly odd to think that they have performed this piece a number of times, making the 'liveness' of their conversation seem like a bit of sophisticated fakery to begin with, though I quickly forgot about this -- I guess they merely have a framework to move through, anyway, and much of the apparent spontaneity and occasional confusion is genuine, or nearly genuine. I suspect what we see is an edited reenactment of a conversation or series of conversations that, at some point, they really did have: and therefore, what we see in their dialogue is, at worst, brilliantly well-done verbatim theatre. For me, though, the closing moments are the real clincher. Klunchun brings to an abrupt end a dialogue about the use of nudity in Jerome Bel, when Bel threatens to drop his trousers and demonstrate a moment from that piece; the ensuing minute or so of the conversation, which touches cursorily on attitudes to sex and nudity in their respective cultures, proceeds bumpily and ends with Bel -- and all of us in the audience -- tacitly implicated in the tourist-driven colonisation of Klunchun's culture, about which the two men have talked sympathetically and at length earlier in the piece. There is an uncomfortable two seconds of silence. "Do you want to ask me anything else?" asks Bel. "No," replies Klunchun. "Shall we stop then?" "Yes." And that's that. This jarringly uneasy ending superbly reframes the whole of the conversation that we've just witnessed, in far more politically activated terms; the whole platform on which their intercultural conversation has been staged is thrown into question. The sudden lack of resolution is a brilliant coup de theatre, which perfectly encapsulates the luminously sophisticated blend of theory and showmanship that Bel offers any engaged and open-minded audience.

Tanztheater Wuppertal: The Rite of Spring / Cafe Muller
Sadlers Wells

Straight into another highpoint in this exceptional Sadlers Wells season, with my first sighting of Tanztheater Wuppertal since 1995, when they brought to Edinburgh the extraordinary Nelken, a piece that somehow managed to feel both remote and overwhelming. In fact my first exposure to Pina Bausch's work came with happening across a documentary a couple of years earlier -- probably a South Bank Show, from back in the day when serious arts programming on terrestrial tv wasn't necessarily a contradiction in terms -- the most memorable part of which was a clip from Cafe Muller, of which I have consequently been wanting to see the full version ever since.

Bausch is as German as Jerome Bel is French, and it is perhaps the ravishingly desolate Cafe Muller that best sums up her aesthetic: stylish, bleak, weird (in the strictest sense), and suffused with a pain so intense that it continually takes off into the ecstatic or sinks into the absurdly comic. (And Bausch really does do absurdity, in a way that seems both cruel and charming.) The piece places a small group of isolated individuals in a chic, melancholic cafe, and watches them collide but fail to connect, as if they were so many malfunctioning clockwork toys, bouncing witlessly off the walls, tottering crazily about, and yet seemingly lost in private arias of grief and longing. The figure I find most heartbreaking is a thin, elegant woman who haunts the periphery of the cafe, apparently unseen by anyone else; this presumably is the role that Bausch herself was advertised to play, though injury or indisposition sadly prevented it the night I was there. The music, when there is music, is from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and the sequence, about halfway through, set to Dido's Lament, which for the first time brings most of the characters into the room at the same time, is as beautiful and clever a piece of theatre choreography as I've seen in a long time, and what's particularly striking about it is that I can't really think of anyone on the contemporary scene who would dare to use such nakedly solemn music without once undercutting it. Yes, there are moments of idiosyncratic humour, but these only extend the searching movements of the sadness, rather than relieving it or offering any consolation.

The same is true, on a larger scale, of Bausch's legendary The Rite of Spring, which was her first major work as a choreographer. Fascinating, of course, to see it so soon after Bel's (apparently) almost satirical use of the same score for his Jerome Bel, a work which in most respects couldn't be much more different from Bausch's: and, furthermore, having seen at the end of last year Michael Clark's Mmm..., which went out of its way to have a characteristically sassy kind of fun with Stravinsky's Rite. What distinguishes Bausch's approach to the score is her courage, the unstinting fidelity to Stravinsky's vision: she is determined not to look away. Again, there is no undercutting, no wink to the audience. In that sense, and from this distance, Bausch's Rite seems to belong to a different era, to be oddly backward-looking in some ways: certainly its opening, in particular, seems to refer at moments to the angularity and flatness of Nijinsky's original. There is nothing but modernity powering Bausch's vision of the Rite but also a total application to the challenges posed by the score and its embedded narrative, where more recent choreographers might be satisfied to further problematize that task or to (appear to) disregard or evade the pressure of inheritance. Though Bausch's choreography here is nothing short of marvellous -- particularly when she's moving the whole corps at once, and especially when that movement is fractured by the complex bar-to-bar timeshifts in the score -- there is no doubt that, compared with the much more recent and perhaps more topically effective reading offered by her protege Raimond Hoghe in his astoundingly minimal and literally terrifying Sacre, this Rite seems a little removed from us now, just slightly slipping away from a savagery and a cogency that I suspect it would have delivered even ten years ago.

Perhaps, then, the sensational information in these works is slowly dissipating as time passes and the influence of Bausch's innovations becomes absorbed by a second new generation of dance-theatre makers, almost all of whom are certainly aware of their debt to this extraordinary artist. For myself I would have to regretfully confess that, particularly with Cafe Muller, I found it awfully difficult to stay tuned in, not because the work bored or repelled me in any way -- in fact quite the opposite: I found myself so stimulated by it and by my personal analysis of her authorial choices as it was unfolding, that I had to keep reminding myself to focus on the piece itself, rather than on the high-octane daydreaming it precipitated in me. But that's just how it goes these days -- I can't remember the last time I was overwhelmed by a piece in the way that Nelken captivated and engrossed (and sometimes bored and repelled) me over a decade ago, because I can't quite stop myself doing this bloody reverse engineering job on what I'm watching (at least, if it's any good). What I do find remarkable still about Bausch, and enviable, is precisely that ability to stare, unblinkingly, into the void, or the fire, or the picture of cruelty. It is extraordinary; and given that the options for evasion, for looking away, for protecting the gaze with a veil of critical theory, are not necessarily dishonourable and often actually pertinent, it will perhaps become rarer, in the next few years at least.

Women of Troy
National Theatre

That said, there is a very similar, and in some ways even more brutally productive, commitment to the unsparing and the unswerving in Katie Mitchell and Don Taylor's account of Women of Troy at the National. One advantage of having left it so late in the run -- a product, I'm ashamed to say, of a slightly kneejerk aversion to Mitchell's work which it's taken me a little while to talk myself out of, causing me to miss her Waves and Attempts on her Life, both of which I dare say I would have benefited from seeing -- was that I was able to go in having just that weekend read Mitchell's short piece in the Tanztheater Wuppertal programme, in which she acknowledges, with great warmth and generosity, the influence that Pina Bausch has had on her own work. And I'm pretty pleased to say it's quite obviously there!: not merely in the presentation of the women themselves -- their evening dress and high heels, their clinging to rituals of making-up and odd vestiges of social dancing -- but also in what felt like a fierce refusal to allow any of the surface features of the production or occasional hints of modishness to offer a diversion from the agonies of fear and sorrow with which the whole piece is gripped. Again, there are odd moments of humour -- particularly in Taylor's fine text -- which arise, as they do in Bausch, mostly out of the stupidity of the body and the addled daftness of the brain as both simply glance off the impenetrable mass of grief which each of the characters contains (and can only hope to contain).

One of the more minor problems I had with Mitchell's dismal Dream Play, the last production of hers that I saw, recurs here: which is that the internal moulding of the piece -- especially in moving between what appear to be separately conceived sections, above all those that are founded on one particular image -- does not always feel secure. I think I'm probably oversensitive to this because I have big problems with it too: the work appears too episodic, particularly when there are no changes of location to help the sense of flow or of foreground/background. Some images become too exposed, too vulnerable in the operations of the piece, too open to that ghastly ungraspable charge of appearing 'studenty', simply because (to be a bit blunt) they belong to the director and the company rather than to the play. There is also an indistinct quality to the movement at times, particularly when the sense of present drama has to be sustained through some very long and involuted speeches. What this does create, though -- along with the similarly unclear speaking, which drew some of the early (and eventually drowned-out) criticism of the production -- is an awful sense of how beyond these women is the terrible scale of their predicament, how even the loftiest of them, being only human, is dwarfed by it.

I liked very much a slightly jarringly ingenious device by which, through some cleverly designed light and sound, the 'fourth wall' opens up like a hatch door to allow the chorus to speak directly to the audience; I was grateful for it particularly because its first use came just as I was beginning to feel anxious about the preposterousness of the actual event -- slight intimations of 'shouting at night', I'm afraid. Having the women at least from time to time able to acknowledge us, and rather painfully cut off from us the rest of the time, I thought worked superbly well. Other features praised by earlier critics (and friends who saw it early on) did not impress me so much: for a start, the production seems to have changed quite substantially since it was in preview, so there was some stuff that, as it were, never turned up. The almost ghostly, weirdly disconnected dancing that recurs at moments throughout is clearly a fascinating idea, and (aside from the slight cavil above about the transition into and out of passages at what seem to be slightly different levels of 'reality') it's mostly bad luck that they didn't work so well for me: this seems a poor excuse for failing to be moved by something, but there we are: the music that accompanied those moments, the first few bars of Ives's 'The Unanswered Question', I've used twice in shows of my own -- to accompany climactic sequences of a very different flavour in The Consolations and, more recently, Escapology: so the deep association of that music with entirely different propositions was, inevitably, rather estranging for me. Haunting though that music is, it seems a surprising choice for this production, being pretty well-known in its own right and quite strongly associated with a specifically American modernism.

All these little doubts and feints aside, I was impressed and ultimately a bit upset by Women of Troy -- the last ten or fifteen minutes, and in particular the brilliantly managed final moments, are utterly convincing and quite harrowing. I can comfortably declare my petty Mitchell Embargo well and truly over. There's no mistaking the scale of her -- and Taylor's, and her remarkable cast's -- achievement here.

The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other
National Theatre

That it should be possible to see Women of Troy and The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other on consecutive nights from the exact same seat in the Lyttelton, as I did, pretty much speaks for itself as a testament to the extraordinary reinvigoration that continues to transform the National under Nicholas Hytner. To see this important Peter Handke play programmed into one of the most significant spaces in the country is massively exciting and, in a way, a huge relief, in that it seems to be just another indicator of a small but substantial shift in the centre of gravity in our theatre culture. Arts Council garbage notwithstanding, it's a great time to be involved in and caring about theatre here.

OK. That said, every time I hear about somebody being discombobulated by The Hour..., the phrase I find myself wanting to reach for is: "Calm down, dear, it's only a commercial." I had better say right away that, not having read the text -- either Meredith Oakes's translation or any prior version -- I can't say whether the observations that follow refer to Handke's play or to this production of it in particular, though a certain amount of the commentary that has already been aired around the piece suggests the latter more than the former. What seems very striking to me is how far this show is from the fearsome hairshirt experimentalism that some were tremulously anticipating. I was expecting a sort of epic enigma; in fact, what we get is, in most ways, a very cleverly wrought, slightly old-fashioned farce: diagrammatic plotting; thumbnailed characters -- or, rather, character types; frantic rhapsodies of entry and exit; and a bustle of incongruent relationships that add up to as little as possible beyond an extended sequence of frissons.

What puzzles me is how none of the commentary that I've seen picks up on the fundamental discrepancy between the moment-to-moment operations of the piece and the tonal resonance of its titular promise -- and I don't just mean its actual duration, way in excess of an hour. If, as many critics have noted, and my experience seems to bear this out, what we are given here is a sort of cascade of stories that begin and then (in most, though by no means all, cases) are withdrawn before they can resolve, then surely what enables those stories to arise is not our ignorance and estrangement of each other's lives, but our learned ability to read, particularly from the stage, a massive amount of information about a character in just a few seconds. Few if any of the characters we're shown here really are enigmatic or unknowable, nor are their thoughts and movements inscrutable to us; we make quick decisions about these characters, based on quickly recognizable signs, and within, what?, ten or fifteen seconds, we feel we know a great deal about who these people are and where they might be going. And so, like any farce or comedy of manners, the propelling technology here is not the uncontainable and ineffable quality of the strangeness of others, but the airless, and ultimately joyless, proximity of what makes them so familiar that, before we've even glimpsed them, we already know enough about them to sustain us through the few seconds of stage life that most of them will have. Written with unassailable skill, powered by the audience's recognition of what it is shown, fully invested in the titillation of standard narrative response, and daring only in the most rapidly assimilable ways, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other is, on this evidence, a play that Alan Bennett might have written at this late point in his career, had Bennett ever had the remotest critical interest in theatre (as he casually and genially admits he doesn't).

The pitch at which the familiarity of these characters is telegraphed by the busy cast is in itself one good reason why I'm perplexed by the suggestion that's been mooted in a few places that the piece would have done better had it been staged in the public space outside the National, supposedly blending indistinguishably into its surroundings. Such events are, I'm certain, absolutely crucial to the future negotiation of what theatre can be and mean: but I can't see that this piece, at least in its current production, is a plausible candidate -- quite apart from the extent to which the pleasures of this show are so much to do with Handke's writing, his authorial control of a closed space whose parameters we do not initially know. Inside or out, the world of The Hour... is not boundaryless, it is carried in the projections of the actors and the crafting of their interactions. It would never not be distinguishable as a bordered piece, and as such, to most intents it may as well be inside the Lyttelton as outside. If conclusive proof of this were needed, consider the passage towards the end of the play where yet more actors / characters start clambering out of the auditorium and onto stage. Knowing that such a disturbance of the piece's insularity was coming up, I harboured some faint hope that the device might at least create an interesting disruption which would alter the pitch-trajectory of the play. Not so; and in fact, I felt almost insulted by the way it was done (perhaps this is Handke "offending the audience" agane?). These emergent twerps took nothing of us with them, but right from the get-go were performing away just like their staged colleagues. Syntactically of course the only way of resolving this manoeuvre, if it fails to have the effect of de-virtualising the stage, is for the rest of the audience to submit to the same gloss of strenuous fictionality. Perhaps part of the problem is that the theory of this kind of diegetic collapse is considerably advanced now on where it was in 1992 when the play was written.

I don't want to overegg this indignation. I enjoyed myself; I found that I was very content watching the show, once I had figured out where it was aiming itself; I didn't look at my watch, and I was prepared for it to go on longer than it did, so that the ending seemed quite sudden and in a way rather understatedly moving. The only truly beautiful moments though, for me, were those when something else, something actually 'other', was doing the acting: alone on stage, a remote-controlled buggy zips around for a while, its manipulator unseen; some newspaper pages, and, later, a wedding veil, are buffeted by the wind. But it's when one considers what is going on in such moments that one realises how cautious, at least by present standards, Handke (or his director here) has been. 450 characters; yet, as per the adage, no children, and no animals. Obviously, in part, thank God that we were spared the sight of any of these actors 'playing' children; one of them does a turn as Puss in Boots, but that doesn't count as an animal, ok? The point is, this production does not -- I mean, really, my word, by a long way, does not -- pass the Cat Test, and as such, any relation to the future of theatre is purely coincidental. The best thing that can conceivably come out of this production, in those terms, is a smaller, more intimate, production somewhere else of Handke's stunning The Long Way Round, which, given a sensitive treatment by actors who really might just have stepped up out of the audience, could yet save us all.

Ridiculsmus: Tough Time, Nice Time
Barbican Pit

Aside from, naturally, The Street of Crocodiles, I've never seen anything in a theatre (I mean a proper theatre) that's floored me as totally and utterly as Ridiculusmus's Yes Yes Yes, a show that I suspect really is, unlike almost everything else that's ever claimed to be so, unique. This probably makes me quite a bad audience member for the work they've done since. It's not that I just want them to repeat Yes Yes Yes over and over (though I guess honestly I slightly do); it's that I want them to make a different show that is equally unique and equally loveable.

Tough Time, Nice Time is very, very good, and probably unique in a very particular way; but loveable it ain't. Two sleazy characters share a Bangkok jacuzzi: a lawyer with a colourful past as a drug-dealer and 'money-boy', and a bored, black-hearted, sex-obsessed writer who pretends to be recording in a notebook the muddled and vicious anecdotes the lawyer is telling him. (He's not, he's confecting a sort of real-time translation of them into bargain-bin porn.) Most of their stories, in the end, turn out to be a bit like the plots of various movies to which they constantly refer. For an hour, their bath and their seamy and repetitious conversation are the only things to look at, save for a brief and brilliantly thrown-away nightclub scene.

That it's more fun than it sounds is principally due to the superlative acting of Jon Hough as the lawyer and, especially here, David Woods as the writer. This new show is unveiled as part of a 15-year retrospective season at the Barbican, and there could hardly be a better advertisement for working with the same person over and over again for that long. The duo are able to take the script at an astounding and almost unrelenting lick, and to keep it slippery and nervous and sounding completely fresh and plausible. It's quite demanding and quite dirty. (The only thing that doesn't seem plausible, in fact, is that Hough's highly contained and uptight character has even been fistfucked.) There were more walkouts, the night I saw it, than there were on the night I saw Mercury Fur. -- Actually, Philip Ridley is an interesting reference point, as someone else with a close interest in storytelling as a way of shoring up the human coherence of an increasingly violent and abject world. Ridiculusmus offer far less possibility of redemption -- in fact they offer almost nothing positive or optimistic at all, except, finally, a pretty accurate picture of where we are and what (in the west) we're saying we want, whether we hear ourselves say it or not. The textures of the piece, with its savagely quick cuts between discussions of historical and current conflicts and depravities, snapshots of sexual and chemical excess, nihilstic and exploitative worldviews, and the more middlebrow end of the multiplex programme, come closer than I've seen in almost any playwriting -- at least outside of Adriano Shaplin's work with The Riot Group -- to the movements of some late modernist poets (albeit the diction is necessarily more pedestrian here). In fact I haven't seen the extent and intricacy of our collective insinuation in the prosecution of various atrocities that seem either geographically or historically remote from us so brilliantly nailed since Chris Thorpe's similarly pent-up Static. (Which prompts me to note in passing that I'm slightly worried about the valorisation in some quarters of very restricted performance spaces such as the bath here; it's good and effective, yes, but it's part of the content of the piece, not a formal or structural innovation -- at which level, a jacuzzi is categorically identical with a living room.)

Essential in more ways than one (but probably not more than two), Tough Time, Nice Time confirms the value to us of Ridiculusmus, their intelligence and daring. I don't know that it will bowl anybody over as Yes Yes Yes did to me eight years ago; perhaps it will. It seems less exciting as theatre. I mean it's easier to imagine this piece being filmed for tv, say, than that one: but I don't suppose it will. In a culture where tv people were that smart, plays like this would hardly be necessary.


Anonymous said...

Elsewhere online lately, I've been engaged in a debate about the distinction between knowledge and other kinds of mentation - principally belief, but it alerts me to a corresponding slip in your own Handke evaluation. Our view of the characters is assumption, is inference, is not knowledge in any comparable sense to that of a more character-developed piece. Far from identifying a bogusness in the play's title, I'd argue that you've fallen into its heffalump trap.

I was very taken with it, not so much on policy grounds (I liked this production a lot more than I remember liking Luc Bondy's at Edinburgh several years ago, which was altogether more colourful and exuberant, so it's not that kind of blandishment that was in operation with me) as because it chimed with my current semi-depressed, semi-dissociative condition: it seemed to offer me (me!) the golden mean between engagement (and, as I say, factitious engagement at that) and observation at a safe distance. In the context of its overall critical reception, I'd point out that this ambivalence or inconsistency in the play and/or production should not be presumed to be a flaw only.

As regards Ridiculusmus, I'm now in a transport of fear that I'm on a discussion panel about them this Saturday and Yes Yes Yes is the great big lacuna in my viewing history...

Anonymous said...

chrissie, you are a god. i will hear nothing else.

Monster Paperbag said...

nice, cozy place you got here :)..

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