Particulars of the explosion


Some of what I recall, from the year nearly gone.

In Susanne Kennedy’s Women in Trouble (Volksbühne, Berlin. January) the central character is multiplying. There is another her in the next chamber, conducting what looks like the same conversation in a similar t-shirt, latex mask, wig. The chambers – rooms – are on a carousel, a stage revolve, that doesn’t stop turning. Everything is in the bright unliving colours of sweetshop dreams, pinks, purples, candy green. Every room has its television, its screensaver. Bloodcell patterns. This is Lifespring, the place she has come to with her disease. In life she is an actor in a soap opera. At the soap opera her character’s demise is being scheduled with all sensitivity. Figures peer back through beaded curtains from receding scenes, into what’s coming next. Several of the female figures multiply, metastasize, beside themselves, like her; none of the male ones do. The latter tend to congratulate themselves. Her mother keeps her padded jacket on indoors always. Everyone behaves like CGI. No-one speaks their own words. There is, towards the end, a musical lamentation. She sings alone in all of the chambers at once. The receptionist, while folding towels (something she does a lot) synchs to a long speech about medication disclaimers. What may be the last phrase of the evening: ‘Show me your wounds.’

What happens in John (National Theatre, London. February) takes place in the downstairs reception of a Gettysburg boarding house. Between scenes, one of the older characters – the woman who manages the boarding house, I believe it was – will put the hands of the clock forward to the time of the next action. Whenever she does this, we see in quick succession every single lighting state corresponding to the passing of time between one scene and the next, morning brightness, long afternoon shadows, evening gloom and so on, as if there were no single moment that won’t have been lived by someone, and so the moments cannot pass unacknowledged. The people in Annie Baker’s play, I think we are being told, have experienced so many different kinds of days. As have we ourselves. The days don’t all have to be spoken of. These experiences, I make note, are not so much a store for dipping into, but a kind of security against whatever is to come. It goes with all the other securities we gather, waste, treasure, mis-value, hold close or choose to let go.

L’Effet de Serge / La Melancholie des dragons (Nanterre-Amandiers, Paris. February). Another kind of revolve, perhaps. A tenth anniversary revival of these two pieces by Philippe Quesne’s Vivarium Studio, neither of which I had seen before. So it goes for the handful of weekly visitors to Serge’s apartment, where he takes coats, offers drinks, and shows his friends what he’s been working on. Micro-scenographic demonstrations. The rest of the situation: solitude, ungainly sociability, the look of love. Between visits, Serge rehearses. An illuminated thread, flickering to ‘Billie Jean’. Be careful what you do. This time he bangs his face on the door in the dark and gets a nosebleed. The dragons, meanwhile, if that is who they are – a troupe of sexagenarian metal-head itinerant scenographers – are stuck in a snow-drift in a companion play, huddled together in their broken-down car, necking beers, rocking out to AC/DC, Iron Maiden. The woman who comes by on her bike and rescues them – they seem to know her from before – could as well be one of the two old friends from the Gettysburg boarding house. In return, they unpack – just for her – the spectacle from their trailer. A nocturnal, immobile parade. These forms could themselves be the dragons, derived from a long-held grief, but barely remembered as grievous now and inflated into shapes that are beheld – in the night, in the snow, in the dark – as weightless, as kindness, a kind of joy.

The gravitations of joy would appear to have been the burden also of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Sky in a Room, commissioned by Artes Mundi for the National Museum Cardiff (March) where for five weeks, throughout the day, a succession of black-clad, professional organists played – and sang – Gino Paoli’s 1959 hit ‘Il cielo in una stanza’ on the museum’s 18th century Sir Watkins William Wynn chamber organ, situated in one of the central galleries, which was cleared of paintings and other objects for the duration of the event. Each organist performed without interruption, singing in Italian, the words like foam on a perpetually breaking melodic wave, drifting through the adjacent rooms. You could sit behind the the performer as they played, with his or her back to the people in the room, the song a proposition – a mental proposition – to be entertained by those who happen to be there. ‘Quando sei qui con me quel stanza non ha piú pareti ma alberi, alberi infiniti…’. ‘When you are here with me this room no longer has any walls but trees, infinite trees…’. The sky in a room: a ridiculous conceit, but there we are. And there we stay, in this fantasy of a momentary dissolution of the material infrastructure that keeps the fantasy afloat, as long as we are inclined for it to do so.

The temptation – or compulsion – to ‘stay with’ was also part of the offer of Eduardo Fukushima’s solo dance performance Título em Suspensão (Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Brussels. May), although that may in the end be an offer more claimed by the spectators than made by the artist: a particular suspension of decidability around which the ecological ethos of this work turns. Fukushima, for the most part, works slowly, in silence and close to the ground, at the floor level where most of us are sat against the walls of the Brigittines chapel, surrounding his performance. Movements effect delicate adjustments of balance, of appearance and identity, which claim our attention – as it were – for the movements themselves, for what they are worth. Unti, that is, the moment when Fukushima spits out a pebble that was concealed in his mouth and gives his attention to the pebble, on the floor in front of him. And we stay, or we leave – we all leave eventually, although some are still there nearly an hour later – in various attitudes of amusement, impatience, appreciation. The performer, by this point – although at which point did this begin? – is less an object-image of our attention than an occasion for our being there, in the room with each other. Something of theatrical value has been redistributed about that space, and when each of us stands up to walk out, it hangs somehow about us as we go.

On the flight again to Berlin, attendants pass down the aisle purveying what an announcement refers to ‘fantastic brands’, holding in front of their stomachs open catalogues of whatever might answer to our feverish needs. I am having none of it at the time, but at Albert Serra’s Liberté (Volksbühne, Berlin. June) that particular performativity comes back to mind. Albert Serra, director of the Jean-Pierre Léaud film The Death of Louis XIV; director of the Casanova and Dracula film The Story of My Death. We drama is set at some scrap of ground, outside eighteenth-century Potsdam. There’s a plot about a group of aristocrat libertines, migrants from authoritarian pre-Revolution France, looking to find new markets for their skills, their philosophies. People gather in this place at night, carried on and off by tireless operators in sedan chairs – this sedan traffic continues interminably – to watch each other, to plot, to trade, to fuck, and to talk. The leader of the libertines is played by Ingrid Caven, from the Fassbinder films and others. On stage throughout, in a double sedan with broken glass windows, like a caravan-park casualty, is the decrepid roué the Duke of whatever, played by Helmut Berger, from the Visconti films and others, peering out occasionally from behind dirty lace curtains. Young ones join him there, trading a dose of mercury for stories from the days. He holds out fragile fingers for the quicksilver. The young ones ask him, did he ever know a desire for which he was prepared to commit a crime. I can’t remember the answer he gives. Berger takes his curtain call sat on a cushion at the front of the stage, from the spot where his character eventually dies.

Back in London, at Tim Spooner’s The Voice of Nature (Battersea Arts Centre. June), there is what sounds, as things proceed, like someone or something hammering on the steel drum we must be inside of. Yellow and white wires, spindle-legged tripods of all sizes, yellow fans and hungry yellow funnels, stretched garments, foil blankets, panels with lights switches, take up all the room in the stage space so that Spooner has to shuffle very carefully, during the course of the performance, around the studio perimeter wall, taking dictation as he goes from a large-eyed cuddly fur creature in his arms, speaking the words back delicately into his hand, generating live-typed surtitles, while the paraphernalia around him becomes ever more animate. I remembered being small, but not small enough as a child to fit into my own bed, once the toys had each been allotted its own place to sleep. I remembered as a child, the first time being aware of sleeping away from home, being unable to sleep, terrified of the Daddy Long Legs in the corner ceiling shadows. Spooner, though, appears to have that all in hand, for now. You start to wonder if the sounds and eruptions of the nature here – those pink balls popping around the space ever more frantically – is something he can activate at will. At the applause, the BAC audience is unwilling to let him go, and it looks like it may be more trouble than it is worth for him to do so, so he stands there – allowing it to hppen – until we run down.

Nature and language and the ways we learn to name and claim these as ‘our own’, were back in play in Back to Back’s Lady Eats Apple (LIFT/Barbican, London. June), where a man comes on stage to represent a man, and a woman comes on stage to represent a woman. Later, there will be a courtship scene between these two, played out far away in the upper circle of the auditorium of a theatre in which we have seen many such scenes played out before, although we realise – once the inflatable tent has been dismantled, in which the first part of the show was presented, on the theme of signs and how to take them seriously – that now we are following the action from the stage. As if tuning into something happening outside of performance hours. Backstage. Between a couple of the cleaning staff, which is what these actors are pretending to be. We listen to the dialogue on headphones, which makes it sound particularly close, like someone speaking endearments, inducements into your ear. ‘I have a cd player. I have a couch. We can have coffee, and kiss, and fondle each other.’ It sounds real, said like that. Later, at the end of the play, on the stage right in front of us, an actor who may actually suffer from severe epilepsy plays an actor who may be dying from an epileptic fit. Other members of the cast wait for the emergency services to arrive. I can’t remember whether, like Helmut Berger in Berlin, he is given a cushion for his head. The detailed performativity of care, however, is rehearsed convincingly by people – fellow actors – who know well, in such a spot, what is at stake.

September through November. New year for me. This, perhaps, is where a certain tone gets set, so one does well to choose carefully where one begins. I started at Marcia Farquhar’s ‘non-survey’ exhibition DIFFIKUɅT in the Southwark Park galleries (London). Most of that Friday afternoon I spent in the former Clare College Mission Church (now Dilston Grove), watching the 16 short films that make up the Dog’s Bolex series. I pulled up a folding chair from the side and placed it front centre where I imagined the front pew to have – formerly – been. I was the sole congregationalist that afternoon, but the tone had already been set earlier, in the listening room with Farquhar’s Pushing 60 podcast, where at some point her voice seems to speak of a renewal or return of old familiars, old vengeances: spooked again, I think was the phrase. What snagged, then, in the following weeks was something about how the business of ghosting – or of being among ghosts – had become also a matter for the young to deal with. Alan Fielden and JAMS’s Marathon (Barbican, September) was dedicated to putting together the body of a performance that has already been dismembered, mislaid, misremembered, a body with which to run and run fast, although the running, once achieved, seems it may only be racing from one mess of a battle into another. A month later at Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play (Battersea Arts Centre, London. October), one of my own students Emmanuel Carriere stood up from his seat in the auditorium, in the middle of the show, a spotlight shining on him, and walked down to the stage to join in the action, as if it were the most proper thing to do in all the world. As if ‘nobody’ is some sort of somebody to be after all, to the extent that everyone else around him – all those professional actors, these haunters of stages – appeared desperate to do the same: tearing off wigs, skirts, prostheses, tearing off full-body body-suits, but making such a business, such a palaver about it, chucking up all of that nineteenth century Russian bollocks, ramping it up instead with the 21st century Dublin bollocks, as if they do still believe it could be themselves – really themselves: their time, their place, their history, post-dramatic, post-crash, post-reality’s wrecking ball – that all of this was really all about. Suffice to say, Manny’s cool performance saw them all off, admirably, the show ending at a point where the best ghost dramas are inclined to begin: with someone introducing themselves, as if about to tell us a tale. Which is, perhaps, what we were waiting for when Chris Goode’s solo storytelling performance Mirabel (Oval House, London) came around in November. Where this one starts – to borrow a phrase from Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley’s film Permanent Green Light, which had been haunting me since its single London screening at Cabinet Gallery back in mid-September – is with a ‘particular of the explosion’. One of the smallest, the youngest. Or so she remains to herself. In the tale that Goode tells, an entire world shatters, leaving only a little girl, Mirabel, to roam the desolate remains in the company of friends put together from memory, from imagination, from other bits of tale, from whatever resources we manage to keep onside: a red-eyed dog, a stone, an injured pilot… What got me so particularly at the time, following in the theatre from moment to moment, was a passage from the end of the story where Mirabel has left behind the last of her companions and is ascending what appears to be an infinite shopping-mall elevator, carrying her out of the haunted fiction of childhood into the smashed and compacted, collective delirium of some kind of adulthood – her adulthood, ours, Goode’s, God only knows – that is perpetually self-reassembling from the monumental trash of language, the corporation-speak, the data-speak, the news-speak, the brain-speak and screen-speak…

The language that adults give to children also made up much of the substance of Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment’s That Night Follows Day (Southbank Centre, December), although it’s not the text so much that carries my attention this time (I saw the Dutch language version of the piece a decade ago) as how the seventeen young performers – children and teenagers from in and around London – carry the language that is put on them, if these things are separable. There are seventeen of them. I count them: it’s a mild sort of obsessive behaviour I take with me to the theatre, to count the actors. But then, this show, in its way, invites us to do just that. Their portraits are displayed in a row high on the back wall of the stage: too far away to see the portrait features clearly, but large enough to see that is what they are. There is a sequence where we learn the names of the actors, as they take time-out during the show, sitting in a row of chairs beneath those portraits, against the back wall. A mic is passed from one end of the line to the other and many of these young Londoners, as they tell us their names and something about themselves, speak in a language other than English. One of the children, though, does not speak. He holds his head in his hands: he ignores, and lets the mic go past. I take it he is pretending, now. I take it this is rehearsed. But perhaps he was not, then, when his refusal to be figured in this way was made a part of the show.

I can only guess about that last detail, but it is a thread that might lead back – at least, part of the way – to debbie tucker green’s play ear for eye (Royal Court, London. November), where a critical play with the operations of figuration is in force, even before the play begins. An element of the production design involves a semi-opaque box that encloses the performance area for the act breaks, producing the effect that actors inside – or behind – the box, appear as shadows, shapes, silhouette figures whenever performers come close to the screen surface. It seems part of a visual (and not just visual) argument running throughout the performance, to do with how certain people have appeared – and continue to figure – for other people, in ways that the large number of people on this stage – black British and American people – don’t even have to complete for each other, don’t even have to fill in the substance of the sentences in which they are, already, acknowledging these things of and for each other, the racist operations of power that operate in the territory between ear and eye, in a stage language that moves – because it has to – as fast as thinking, faster than figures of speech can form in the eye or ear of the mind. The only complete sentences in the play seem to come from a long video recitation towards the end of the evening of British colonial slave codes and US Jim Crow laws. Which precedes the reiteration, in an epilogue, of a young man’s demand, in the insistent now: Give me a reason not to. He is speaking about violent action. There are no reasons forthcoming.

Violence is the focus again, on the same stage some weeks later, of Mark Ravenhill’s play The Cane (December, still running), where again there is a scenographic device that ‘comes down’: this time a ceiling that descends onto the stage, as much to deprive the stage figures, of the pictorial space in which to flex and breathe, as to reveal – Buried Child-style – where the source of a haunting violence had been long put away, upstairs in the family attic. But violence had already long ago gone rogue. There are shadows and silhouettes here also; but this time the shadows are from outside the scene, mob silhouettes made large against the only pane of window that hasn’t had a brick put through it. What can strike here is that those shadows outside are not an audience – they are not, for instance, our ‘other’ audience, over whose shoulders we watch the drama – but they are not without an interest in what goes on within the scene. They are something like the sheer violent force of the desire to see something done, which can be provoked by one who knows what sign to show. What also strikes, however, is that this may be a ‘mob’ of school students, whose business is also to gather, watch, listen and see how things get done.