Postcard from Perth Festival
Complicité, The Encounter; Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, Opus No. 7; Back to Back, Lady Eats Apple
I only arrived back in Perth last weekend after six weeks’ absence, so was just in time to catch a few shows in the final week of the Festival.
Complicité’s The Encounter has already been generously reviewed during its recent seasons at The Malthouse in Melbourne and at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival (next stop Adelaide); in Perth it was staged in the Edwardian glory of His Majesty’s Theatre (in ironic counterpoint to the postmodern form and post-colonial content of the show). The work premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 and has since toured the UK, Europe and the US, as well as having a limited ‘season’ on the internet; immediately prior to its Australian tour it had a stint on Broadway. Popular and critical reception has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so it’s with some trepidation that I advance my own reservations about the work in the paragraphs that follow.
Complicité was founded in the UK in 1983 and is one of the most famous theatre companies in the world – in its early years because of its very un-English focus on physical and visual theatre (its key founding members trained at the Lecoq School in Paris), but more recently because of its use of technology as a kind of extension of the body and the senses to augment the physical and visual aspects of the company’s work (and, some claim, theatre itself).
It’s fair to say that The Encounter has generated a buzz primarily because of its use of sound technology – and in particular so-called ‘3D audio’. Live sound (generated onstage by the actor) is captured by a ‘binaural’ microphone (which is suggestively shaped like a human head) and transmitted to each individual member of the audience via headphones (which we are asked to wear throughout the show). The uncanny effect is that the sound appears to move 360 degrees around your head, depending on the location of the actor in relation to the microphone.
In fact this is just one element in a densely layered use of live and pre-recorded sound to reflect the many temporal, geographical, narrative, theatrical and ontological layers of the story and the performance itself. These layers include: a journey to the Amazon in search of the Mayoruna people by National Geographic photographer Lorin Macintyre, which provides the ostensible subject-matter of the show; a book about that journey, Amazon Beaming, by Romanian author Petru Popescu (who interviewed Macintyre), which allegedly inspired the show (Macintyre himself having died before its research and creation began); conversations recorded by the show’s writer/director/solo performer Simon McBurney with Popescu and others (including a scientific ‘expert’ on the subject of time as well as McBurney’s young daughter, who interrupts him in his London flat while he’s working on the show); the time of the performance itself; and the fact that McBurney’s original role in the show playing himself and Macintyre – the pitch of his voice digitally lowered via another microphone for the purpose – is (at least for the Australian leg of the tour) being taken by another actor, Richard Katz.
So many layers, and so much mediation – human and technological! Perhaps the intention is to provide a kind of formal allegory for the tale of personal, cultural and (implicitly) environmental devastation that provides the content of the work. Yet the cumulative effect for me was curiously cerebral, imaginatively impoverished, emotionally detached and physically disembodied. As a theatre colleague observed to me afterwards, the show climaxed early on, during the technological preamble, when Katz blew into our collective right ear via the binaural microphone and we not only heard but felt the warmth of his breath. This moment of suggestive sensation was unmatched by anything that followed, for all the show’s undeniably spectacular use of sound, lighting, projection, set design, and Katz’s considerable technical prowess as an actor/sound technician (though I found his performance curiously disengaged and unaffecting, perhaps because of the degree of mediation and multi-tasking involved).
In part, I think this sense of disconnection had to do with the competing mix of live, recorded and ‘augmented’ performance-realities. It’s telling in this regard that a couple of people I know have described the experience of watching The Encounter on their computers as being more satisfying for them than seeing it in the theatre. As my daughter (who saw the show with me) observed afterwards, listening to a sophisticated radio broadcast or podcast was for her a far more immersive and indeed transporting experience than the multi-media event she had just witnessed. So, too, I would venture to say, might be a more intimate staging without using microphones and/or in the dark; or even perhaps the more ‘primitive’ experience of reading Popescu’s book.
As for the content of the work: Macintyre’s tale (as retold by Popescu via McBurney) of cross-cultural ‘encounter’ with a group of doomed noble savages felt somewhat dated and even hackneyed. This became especially oppressive in the final act of the work, when the naive Western photographer assumed his anointed role as some kind of predestined witness to the Mayorunas in their desperate effort to ‘return’ to the source of their existence by destroying their attachment to material things and retracing their way upstream to the source of the river itself.
As Marx recognised, it is not objects or technologies that dominate or liberate us, divide or connect us – it is human relationships, and systems of relationships. To believe otherwise is fetishism: whether in its ‘primitive’ form (long debunked by Lévi-Strauss as an anthropological fantasy), the commodity-form described by Marx, or its current technological-utopian manifestations – of which the head-shaped binaural microphone is perhaps only the latest avatar.
The Russian designer/visual artist/director Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 was for me an altogether more challenging, provocative and unpredictable work of theatre. Staged in the vast and shifting spaces of the ABC Perth Studios, it involved puppetry and object-theatre, clowning, live and recorded music, dynamic scenography, onstage visual-art-making, video-projection, an ensemble of eight performers, and almost no dialogue, but occasional fragments of song or song-lyrics, muttered phrases or words (mostly names), and (in the second half) archival recordings of public speeches and broadcasts.
In fact the work is the collaborative creation of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory at the Theatre School of Dramatic Art in Moscow, where Krymov currently teaches and makes work in a unique combination of practices. This gives his student-cast a palpable sense of collective authorship and an intriguing variety of skills as performers and performance-makers.
Krymov’s work obviously derives from the early Revolutionary Russian avant-garde traditions of constructivism, montage and what a theatre colleague who saw the show referred me to as the ‘theory of attractions’ as articulated and practised by Eisenstein (who before becoming a film director was a theatre director and student of Meyerhold, and in turn profoundly influenced Brecht). The term ‘attractions’ here evokes a circus-like sequence of ‘acts’ or sideshows which each have an independent impact on the spectators, who then make the narrative or thematic connections themselves, rather than having them spelled out by the writer or director.
The first half of Opus No.7, ‘Genealogy’, dealt with themes and images from Jewish history, and in particular the persecution of the Jews in Russia before and after the Second World War, as a kind of precursor and prototype for political and artistic persecution generally. Songs, music and burlesque-style ‘acts’ were punctuated by the surrealistic manipulation of set, props, costumes and bodies. The principle element of scenic construction (and deconstruction) was an artificial back wall through which holes were cut, limbs and figures emerged, a whirlwind of paper-scraps was at one point blasted out into the audience, items of clothing were hung and animated, and black-and-white footage and stills were hauntingly projected – this entire sequence of ‘attractions’ evoking an initially absurd but increasingly harrowing scenario of persecution.
This scenario became more specific in the second half of the show, ‘Shostakovich’, which transformed the space and auditorium into a vast open circus-ring, and featured a Chaplin-like central performance by Kristina Pivneva as a diminutive female clown-version of the composer, pitted against a giant puppet Mother Russia, an army of similarly gigantic and monstrous prop-pianos, and extensive (and occasionally deafening) use of recordings of Shostakovich’s music as well as some of his more notoriously compliant public speeches and broadcasts.
Much like the composer’s music (and life), the rhythms, pace, dynamics and tone of the performance and image-making in this second half became more demanding even as its content (Shostakovich’s artistic and personal ordeals and compromises with the Soviet regime) became more explicit. At times the staging felt relentless and even unyielding to the audience’s eyes, ears or capacity for patience; there were fewer ‘attractions’, and some longueurs. Nevertheless, in comparison with the Complicité production, I left with the sense of having had a much more authentic, sophisticated and profound ‘encounter’ –with the use of mixed-media in performance, with another cultural-historical tradition, and with what it means to be an artist and a human being in the world.
The final work I saw at the Festival was for me both the most powerful and the hardest to describe: Back to Back Theatre’s most recent production Lady Eats Apple. This was billed as a ‘World Premiere Season’, which puzzles me, as it was previously performed at the Melbourne Festival in 2016. Perhaps it’s been reworked since then. Certainly it has the feeling not so much of a work-in-progress as a work-in-a-perpetual-state-of-becoming – which is not inappropriate for a work about God, Creation and mortality.
Back to Back is a contemporary performance company based in Geelong with a core ensemble of performers who have (or are perceived to have) intellectual disabilities. Their shows are devised by the cast in collaboration with director (and longstanding company artistic director) Bruce Gladwin and other artists (actor/devisors, dramaturgs, etc). Their work is totally unique, and each show is groundbreaking.
Lady Eats Apple is staged in a bubble (designed by Mark Cuthbertson) – or more precisely, a bubble-shaped, inflatable tent-like structure consisting of two layered membranes of fabric which enclose the audience and performers (at least initially) in a theatre-within-a-theatre (in this case the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre WA). The night I saw it, the heat and humidity were almost overpowering: it had been in the high 30s all day, and the theatre’s air-conditioning system obviously couldn’t penetrate inside the bubble. People in the audience were fanning themselves; at once stage (during the most difficult section of the show, which takes place in almost complete darkness) I thought I was going to pass out, or have a claustrophobic attack. Yet I remained mesmerized throughout.
As with The Encounter, each seat is provided with headphones, which we are asked to wear throughout the show, and the performers wear microphones. There is nothing fancy about the sound technology though, which is purely functional. The speech of the disabled performers in Lady Eats Apple is difficult to hear and understand, especially when they are a long way away from us, which is the case in the final section of the show. (An earlier Back to Back show, Small Metal Objects, which was performed outdoors at Flinders Street Railway Station, also used headphones for the audience, to isolate the speech of the performers from the noise of the crowd around them.) The use of headphones also creates an extraordinary sense of privacy and even intimacy with the performers, especially in scenes involving dialogue, which almost feel like they are being overheard rather than performed for our benefit. (Surtitles are also used, though this has a more ironically ‘othering’ effect, almost as if ‘disabled’ speech is being treated as a kind of ‘foreign’ language that requires ‘translation’.)
Act One, ‘A New Creation’, is the easiest part of the show: a kind of absurdist sketch in which a besuited, bespectacled and bow-tied actor (Brian Lipson), who resembles an eccentric mentor or kindly psychiatrist (but may also be someone or something more sinister), holds up animal-picture-cards which are named by a disabled actor (Scott Price) – who, it gradually becomes apparent, is (or thinks he is) God (or some kind of Gnostic demiurge) naming his creations. At this point two other disabled actors (Mark Deans and Sarah Mainwaring) appear as Adam and Eve, and we begin to wonder about the identity of the mentor/psychiatrist – is he perhaps Satan, or even Old Noboddady himself (the counter-theology of William Blake seems to hover over this production).
Needless to say, catastrophe ensues – for Adam and Eve, but also for God and his mentor – and we are plunged into the much more demanding world of Act Two, ‘Matter Creates Matter’. This is most abstract and in many ways most radical section of the show, in which sound recordings of first-person accounts of near-death experiences accompany an immersive multi-sensory perceptual encounter with the Sublime (which Kant defined as an overwhelming experience of simultaneous pleasure and horror in relation to an object or idea which cannot be fully grasped by the senses or the understanding). This involved a rippling soundscape and huge shifting pattern-projections passing across the ceiling of the bubble, while almost imperceptible shadowy figures gradually appeared, moved around and disappeared on (or beyond) the translucent but dimly lit back wall. The whole sequence is a triumph of immersive scenography by set designer Mark Cuthbertson, projection designer Rhian Hinkley, lighting designer Andrew Livingston, composer Chris Abrahams, and sound designers Marco Cher-Gibard, Nick Carroll and Lachlan Carrick. Admittedly I felt like I was going through a near-death experience of my own, in part because of the heat, but also because of the collaborative artistry of the conception and execution. This was a lesson in how multiple technologies and modes of perception can be unified in a theatrical evocation of something which (like death, or the Kantian Sublime) cannot be fully presented or understood.
Act Three, ‘The Human Bond’, is challenging in a different way. The set design performs its final ‘reveal’ and the full cast of disabled and non-disabled actors (now also including Simon Laherty and Romany Latham) returns to inhabit a new and more mundane ‘inverted world’. Here everyday injustices, love-trysts, acts of compassion (well-meaning or inept) and small miracles take place (or fail to). I was reminded of the way Northern Renaissance paintings place Biblical figures and scenes in local contemporary landscapes and social settings, and the way this illuminates the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. In this case, it was an inversion not only of the sacred and the secular, but also of the weak and the strong, the humble and the proud.
For Lady Eats Apple is not only a work about God, Creation and mortality, but also about (divine and human) justice and love. This is where the community-based nature of Back to Back’s work feeds most directly and deeply back into its artistic vision, reminding us of Blake’s words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.’
Lady Eats Apple is not always easy or comfortable viewing, but for me it was certainly the most moving, visceral and thought-provoking experience I had at the Festival.