Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End - Rahu Hall, Rakvere

[Originally written for Baltoscandal Ajaleht nr3]

Ever wanted to know what Sex and the City would be like if it wasn’t funny? Or what pornography would be like if it wasn’t meant to be arousing? Or even what Smells Like Teen Spirit would sound like if its brittle, explosive brilliance were reduced to sludge by an inept pub band? Wonder no more; Franco-Austrian company Superamas have all the answers.

Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End really should be great. The wide stage houses a full rock band, an intriguing metal dancefloor and a gym changing room while a large screen hangs above it. The piece opens with members of a band breaking off rehearsals to drink beer as their married bassist reveals he’s got their absent female vocalist pregnant. The action freezes and then the piece starts again. And again. And again. Sometimes the action moves a little bit further on, or is interrupted by more freezing mid-scene, but mostly it is increasingly grinding repetition.

The irritation is compounded by the fact that the performers are actually lip-synching to a poor-quality recording of the threadbare dialogue. Occasionally the sequence is interrupted by moderately diverting videos projected on the screen; twenty-somethings are shown making out in a surprisingly explicit video while the voiceover of an anthropologist arguing that humanity hates and fears love plays on.

The band and stage suddenly explode into life as the female lead singer screams through Teen Spirit, writhing around the floor in a tiny red dress aggressively exposing her breasts and pretty much showing everyone the contents of her knickers before collapsing into a heap of ecstatic masturbation. Then more videos, more sneering at modern life and more ironic distance. Three glamorous young women undress in the changing room of a gym while discussing their sex lives in desultory detail. The net effect is rather like seeing Carrie, Samantha and co. played by lap-dancers. This sequence also repeats over and over. The result feels as exploitative as it is dull. One of the women talks about getting cancer. Another appears to die in a car crash stolen from a David Lynch movie. Some Derrida happens on the video screen. And roll credits.

The real problem here is the corrosive cynicism at the heart of the piece, coupled with an approach to structuring that most closely resembles tearing pieces from magazines, books and scripts, throwing them up in the air and calling where they land a dramaturgical solution. While again, this sounds like it could yield interesting results, here it simply bores. The smug contempt, the straw targets and the sheer lack of intelligence or articulation of the objections make for tedious viewing.

Superamas clearly despise much of modern culture but at the same time display a horror of admitting as much, let alone suggesting any alternative. Their approach boils down to the spectacle of someone commenting on the objectification of women by putting a woman on stage and objectifying them. Thus run all their arguments with modern life. They take things they don’t like, subtract the things that other people might well like about them, and then show us their joyless parodies to prove what a terrible place the world is. It is the sound of someone repeatedly banging their head against their own postmodernism. Happy/End is sex without passion, jokes without humour and life without hope. It’s like capitalism without the shopping.

This is what the majority of the show looked like...

The Nirvana opening section and a bit of some dancing from later can be found here should you wish to live some of the tedium for yourself.

I Apologize - Spordikirik, Rakvere

[First draft plus]

Giselle Vienne’s first collaboration with iconic writer Dennis Cooper, I Apologize is a perfect marriage of dance, text, puppetry, music and sheer intelligence. A young man (Jonathan Capdevielle) paces listlessly on a brightly lit white stage among a large number of blood spattered plywood packing cases. He opens one and fetches out life-like mannequins of 12-year-old girls dressed in a fetishistic schoolgirl outfits. Dennis Cooper’s voice reads out a description of marital violence. Peter Rehberg’s soundtrack – a kind of distillation of terror into noise – builds to an appalling pitch of intensity.

Anja Rötterkamp dressed in the same short skirt and heavy fringe as the schoolgirl dolls and wearing vertiginous shiny black S&M heels circles the stage, her movements suggesting permutations of violent sex; climbing the towers of packing crates, crawling on all fours, spreading and closing her legs with agonising slow-motion deliberation, arching her back as if in continual agony and ecstasy. Her counterpoint, Jean-Luc Verna - shaved head, red contact lenses, metal teeth and a body covered in tattoos - looks utterly terrifying and satanic. His stage presence, however, is strangely graceful, striking poses that quote Nijinsky combined with moments of jerky, intricate nightclub-dancing; at once menacing and magnificent.

The fragments of text to combine with the onstage action to increase the sense of tension and gut-wrenching fear, opening up incredibly disturbing worlds of violent, abusive sexual fantasy. In one, a man talks with a computerised voice answering his online advert for a young man who wants to be sexually abused. The man questions the voice about being abused as a child, clearly gaining sexual pleasure from the details, demanding more and more explicit information.

More dolls are unpacked, seated and threatened, many left to sit ratcheting up the already disturbing mise-en-scene. Scenes suggesting the torture, sexual abuse and murder of young girls combine with Rötterkamp’s disturbingly seductive, sexualised dance of submission. Capdevielle puts scary animal masks on the doll’s faces, while elsewhere he enters wearing a Jar Jar Binks mask - the effect is at once extraordinarily creepy and very funny.

Every moment opens multiple narratives and suggestions. The performances, the music and the text intermingle to create a powerful exploration of the darkest parts of the human psyche. Rather than making the audience piece together a story, or search for meaning, the performance opens a space where the intellect is fired by multiple stimuli while the nerves are assaulted by visceral sensation. The viewer is completely surrounded by and immersed in a nightmare, while every new element creates and refines its possible meanings. The overall effect is shocking, shattering; leaving one’s body adrenalised and the mind racing. It is the single most exciting, thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre, both physically and artistically. Despite the horror, I Apologize also somehow manages to be extraordinarily beautiful, with the final moments achieving a sense of catharsis. An incredible achievement.

No videos of I Apologize on YouTube that I've been able to find, but if you want a rough idea of Peter Rehberg's work, this clip from subsequent Vienne/Cooper collaboration Kindertotenlieder gives some idea - play very loud indeed for full effect.

More photos:

Postcards from Estonia

Once again, this is [was] being written at an altitude of 35,000 ft over the North Sea as Postcards flies back from a six-day jaunt in Estonia under the auspices of the FIT Mobile Lab. This time for the country’s “Baltoscandal” festival in the town of Rakvere. Baltoscandal, it should be noted, apparently has nothing to do with “scandal” (although the Estonian word for scandal is confusingly similar), but with its roots as a festival of Baltic-Scandanavian theatre/dance/performance/live-art.

Of the four FIT festivals I’ve attended so far (Munich, Helsinki, London and Rakvere), Baltoscandal was perhaps by far the most artistically successful. It faces stiff competition from Munich, largely because the programme at Munich exposed me to work that absolutely floored me in terms of how far it was beyond what gets produced in Britain, in terms of experimentation. Interestingly, what stuck out about Munich was the level of technology being deployed in the works shown. I don’t know if that is a peculiarity of the festival director’s taste, an intentional theme for that particular festival or just pure coincidence – after all, SpielArt in Munich ran for much longer than the five days we were there – showing a huge range of works, including Tim Etchell’s collaboration with Victoria That Night Follows Day.

Either way, my perception of what theatre could be was comprehensively re-wired permanently. Even if the work doing the re-wiring wasn’t necessarily the most realised I’d ever seen, there was something about the level of experimentation and difference that really excited me. Similarly, because of that European way of somehow not drawing the same boundaries between “theatre” and “dance” or perhaps drawing them in less definitive, more mutable ways, I was exposed to purer forms of the stuff that Frantic Assembly and co had been drawing on for years. I remember how exciting it was to go to The Place for the first time afterwards and write about it as a “theatre critic”.

Baltoscandal, by contrast, felt kind of cosy and familiar. Cosy and familiar radical experiment, sure, but more like the kind of stuff you might find in Shunt or the BAC - if Shunt or the BAC were having their BEST WEEK EVER. Okay, that’s overstating the case slightly, but only very slightly. Due to a particularly heavy schedule – roughly fourteen hours a day – of planned things, and only then maybe a drink in the festival tent, one’s spirits did tend to wax and wane. There was still an amount of work that was “fine” or “perfectly nice”. Similarly, there were at least two pieces that completely divided opinion. However there were at least three pieces that were outstanding in different ways and several others that were fascinating to see.

Thanks to the festival’s brevity, despite our concurrent workshop programme (only four days), and the fact that we could get into performances we weren’t specifically booked into with our festival passes, it felt like we Mobile Lab types were seeing a very good chunk of what the festival had to offer, rather than being bolted on for what can feel like a random four days a some point in a much longer festival. Similarly, like Wiesbaden, the festival having a popular hub – again in a marquee outside the theatre – gave the event a sense of community that gave both festivals a brilliant extra dimension, where meeting the performers and the visiting programmers from other European festivals, as well as hanging out with the other critics, becomes perhaps the most invaluable part of one’s education at these festivals.

Over the next couple of days I hope to write up some of the shows I saw either in long form, proper review form, or in brief précis. I’m also keen to try to construct a kind of overview of the festival. For the first time it felt like themes emerged from the work, along with a surprising number of shared motifs, and it would be interesting to discuss how these might suggest some sort of commonalty between apparently disparate bits of work.