For reference, the title of this post is referring to my state of mind at this very moment as the latest nonsense out of the US with the Kavanaugh hearings pours in. Is it really all that unbelievable that, once again, a woman’s voice is essentially silenced, even though—and especially since—she had nothing personal to gain from speaking in the first place? First Anita Hill 27 years ago. Now this. I am aware that the official vote of confirmation still has to take place, but I am not optimistic. The cynicism is back in full force, friends. Long may it live.
Funnily enough, I think my general feeling of internalized rage and disgust with everything somewhat mirrors a show I saw on Tuesday evening at the MC93. Le Père is, as the title suggests, about a father. A father figure (a figured father?). There is only one actor on stage, and other than a large square of grass hidden under a panel that rose up halfway through the show and some well-placed fog machines (again with the fog machines), the stage (this was in their smaller upstairs theatre that sort of resembles the salle transformable in Nanterre in terms of size and design adaptability) was relatively bare.
Speaking of space, there is still a lot of talk around what exactly the theatre-going experience is, in terms of the level of connectivity between audience members (or audience members and actors/what is being performed on stage). One of the generally-accepted approaches towards this is to think of the theatre as a site of communion or better community creation. In other words, it is in this shared moment that all involved—audience predominantly, but actors as well—are brought together as one whole for a brief moment in time. How very special.
I snark on this mostly because I have encountered some interpretations of this idea that posit that the community created inside the theatre is capable of continuing to be nurtured outside of it. To be clear, I do not deny there is something that happens in that instance of a shared moment, but I don’t really think it has the capacity to last beyond the exiting of the theatre and the returning to one’s lives. This is not to say a true long-lasting community could never be created just from one night spent with a particular group of people at the theatre. It is possible that that could happen, but unlikely.
I tend to eschew the question of community and prefer to think of going to the theatre of a moment in which I and several other people will happen to be in the same room at the same time watching the same thing play out before us. Maybe this is a result of the fact that 99% of the time, I end up going to see things by myself (because I have work to do, and I can’t really afford to let my showgoing schedule depend on the decisions of others), but I will say that, even though I am by myself, even though I don’t usually have someone to turn to to make a quick comment at or share a knowing glance with, I don’t actually feel solitary at the theatre. I mean, half of watching a performance is watching other people watch it, and it’s kind of hard to separate yourself from the fact that you’re not the only person in the room.
Director Julien Gosselin takes a slightly different approach to the question, stating in the show program that he considers theatre to be a very solitary experience. Fine. I was kind of hesitant about how this was going to be communicated during the show, but honestly, I think he found a way to make that work.
Basically: if Wagner turned off the lights briefly to shut people up, Gosselin kept them off to remind people of how lonely, how solitary in our chairs we really were.
The performance was a good 90 minutes long, and I would say about half of that was in total darkness, the kind of darkness where its more comfortable to keep your eyes closed rather than strain them and risk a headache. And in that darkness, pierced only by the voice of the actor playing the father (I’ll get to him in a minute), unable to quickly gauge the reactions of those around me, those who I knew were still there, I shut my eyes and closed off the main portal to the world around me.
Eventually—from fear of falling asleep maybe, though the at times ground-shaking volume of the, for the moment, disembodied voice, made sleep impossible—I felt okay enough keeping my eyes open, and it was around then that faintly, a light far upstage slowly started to come on. Excruciatingly slowly. After a moment, it was clear that the light was backlighting something—a figure, the father—and this something started to also take on discernable movements, slowly coming closer out of the shadows.
Pure figure. This is a thing come from the abyss. From nothing. Suspended in an unmarked time and place.
The content of the piece surrounds the lament of the titular father over the state of his life. Growing up, he was told what he had to be, what he had to do in order to eventually become this figure, to fully realize it. But—as with several promises made by previous generations as to the general order of things in life—what he was promised never came to fruition. The farm he settled on and cultivated in order to provide for his family must be sold. He has no legacy to pass on to his children. He has failed, miserably, spectacularly at the role he was told he would take on if he followed certain steps. But if he cannot fulfill the supposed requirements for becoming said role, what is he then? He both is—by virtue of his producing children—and is not—by his lack and loss of anything to give them—the title which is conferred on him. Suspended.
It is weird though writing about this in the current context of life in general. I think the one thing that kind of pulled me from fully resisting to what was happening entirely was the fact that, at the end of the performance, he talks about how he burned all the bills and notices from the debt collectors. It’s not an ending that speaks to a revolution, but I think instead of the bleakness, I saw the potential for something different. Something that had to come from hitting absolute rock bottom.
The lights never fully came back on. In the end, the stage was more brightly illuminated, but by that point, at least for me, the cocoon effect of the first half of the performance had done its job. I didn’t particularly care about what other people were thinking. Maybe something like that was what I needed in this moment, to be really alone (or at least have the illusion of being really alone) again. To gather myself…
Sometimes it’s hard to fully get back into that mindset when all you want is to cocoon in a very large warm hug. Ah well. Life.
Anyway, moving on.
I closed out the month by seeing two shows at La Colline, both of which addressed questions of historical trauma, and more specifically, coming to terms with it.
The first, Révélations from the Red in Blue Trilogie by Cameroonian playwright Léonora Miano addressed the notion of trauma and loss in the context of the transatlantic slave trade, and more specifically, the questions of the nameless lives lost at sea during the voyage, whose souls err in the afterlife, unable to find the repose (and eventual reincarnation) of those buried with proper funeral rites. Interestingly, when she was asked about who she would like to stage her piece, she named Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi, whose troupe is known for their highly stylized, ritualized performances.
And holy shit before I say anything else, the costume design of this show was absolutely amazing. Like…go look at pictures of it. It is gorgeous.
The play was in Japanese with French subtitles, and the members of the company took turns alternating between performing on stage, and playing one (or many) of the several instruments in the pit. Stage design was geometrically minimalist, with two large circles—one black, one white—hanging down over the center of the stage, whose deliberate slight shifts were often used to cut the light in such a way so as to suggest pathways (to the world of the living) or isolated chambers for the realm of shadows. At the back of the stage, the limbs of several mannequins lay scattered, looking almost like drowned bodies. To be honest, this was the only element that felt slightly out of place to me, design-wise, as everything else seemed far more suggestive or abstract than literal.
The theatre itself had also undergone a bit of a facelift—well, at least the seats did—over the summer, and I have to say the new ones are pretty comfortable. Removing the last few rows of chairs in order to make room for the orchestra pit, further helped to cut back on what I think is one of my least favorite things about the space: its sharp depth. I don’t know if saying it’s too vertical would be exactly what I’m going for, but sometimes I feel as though, after a certain point, the distance of the seat to the stage coupled with the fact that the stage is not nearly as big as the main stage in Nanterre makes me feel as though I am in a different room entirely than what is being performed in front of me. Thankfully, going to see things alone can have certain advantages sometimes, such as the fact that I can literally pick almost any seat I want when selecting my ticket, meaning I was seated relatively close to the stage this time.
And it almost felt immersive. Almost. The fact that at the end, some of the actors came in the audience to shower us with pink confetti—as well as hand out little pink papers shaped like…something. I honestly have no idea what it is supposed to be other than maybe a cotton bud…maybe—kind of helped bring us in, so to speak, but still, it’s hard to feel completely wrapped up in something when you can see a very large pit, and a very grey platform separating you from this living painting being composed in front of you. Yeah, I still can’t get over the costume design.
The second play, Points de non-retour [Thiaroye], written and directed by Alexandra Badea, comes with a disclaimer [from me] to immediately go and look up the Thiaroye massacre of 1944. Needless to say, it is one of several “incredibly not bright, yet we’re still going to stubbornly deny the monstrosity of it” events of colonial France that the country needs to reckon with. In short, towards the end of the Second World War, around 1600 Senegalese soldiers—recently repatriated to Senegal, after having both voluntarily fought for France and being held as prisoners of war by Nazi Germany—were gathered at the military camp in Thiaroye, Senegal where, on the night of November 30, 1944, they were fired upon by their white superior officers. The reason? The soldiers had recently called a strike after finding out the pensions they were promised were both not equal to those of their white compatriots, as well as very likely not coming anyway. The government justified the massacre by saying the soldiers were prone to revolt, or had otherwise been corrupted by the Germans—claims that were of course, absolutely unfounded—and the official death toll only numbered 35. Those that were assassinated were buried in a mass grave. Furthermore, the distinction “mort pour la France” or “died for France”, a distinction that itself came with a sort of family pension, was denied them.
There has recently been some calls to reopen the investigation into this event to try to provide answers, if not closure. In the play, this is seen through one man—Senegalese, but adopted by a French family when he was very young—returning back to Senegal to find answers about his father who went off in the war and never came home, leaving his wife—a Romanian woman who was conceived during her mother’s brief affair with a German soldier following the disappearance of her Jewish fiancé to Palestine—and newborn son in Paris. The son, whose parents never told him the stories of the gaps and weights in his history, and who bears the name of his grandfather gunned down in Thiaroye, grows up without a means to grapple with the [to him] unknowable trauma passed down from previous generations. Meanwhile, the grandson of one of the French soldiers who carried out the order to shoot finds his grandfather’s old diaries, detailing not just what happened that day, but the haunting presence of the monstrosity of the act that never quite disappeared.
Tying this all together is a journalist who, after she gets a hold of the research of a recently-deceased [I think, that part was either unclear or I spaced out…] colleague, decides to try and finish the work he started, creating a radio broadcast about the event, and ultimately bringing the grandson of the soldier and the grandson of the officer who killed him together.
Yes, the stereotypical inter-generational moment of reckoning/reconciliation happens. So do some rather too on the nose speeches about how we have to change the system, it’s the system that allows for this thing to still be kept in the shadows, and we can change that even by just talking about this event.
Yeah, the writing got a tad clunky sometimes. Several story beats were easy to spot, as the narrative followed a pretty typical structure. But I am glad this play happened still because, yes, I did learn something.
Stage design consisted of two walls angled together to suggest the corner of an apartment, with large windows on which were projected videos of whatever outside setting we happened to be in. And yes, this did also mean that at times they did that thing where an actor leaves the stage and then appears on the video, suggesting a seamless transition into an invisible ‘beyond’ backstage. The front of the stage, meanwhile, was absolutely covered in red sand. Blood red sand. At times it was laid in, picked up, held and run through fingers, and then inevitably tracked along the platform of the stage, traces of blood red footprints on a steel-grey floor.
A final thing: there were times when the performance was intercut with the live typing out of notes being projected onto the wall right above the windows. I’m not entirely sure about that choice, but there you go.
Other than that, I still feel like I’m in a bit of a limbo state. I want to both curl up against something and stretch out and run headlong into something/-where unknown. It’s a strange feeling…