I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately on the nature of theatre in general—what it is, why it’s still around, what the point of it is—and particularly in conjunction with the kind of theater I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to as of late.
Not surprisingly, the more one goes to the theatre—the more variety of shows one sees—the more one gets a sense of what one likes, and even more so, what one does not like.
I’m not entirely sure if this general feeling of jadedness I’ve been immersed in as of late has more to do with what I’ve been seeing or with the slight floundering feeling that comes from sending off one chapter draft—oh yes, I did that last week—and knowing full well that another one needs to be started (like…now) even though exactly how that one is going to look like remains more or less a mystery. In any case, with the exception of a very bright spot courtesy of what is still my favorite theatre in the city as well as someone who I can confirm to be one of my favorite playwrights in general, the last couple of weeks have been very…meh…theatre wise.
This isn’t for lack of variety, though. What I can definitively say is that no show that I saw has been quite like any of the others, itself a testament as to the variety of things (easily) available and accessible to see in this city. On the other hand, what this also means is that not everything is going to be supremely excellent, but then again…at least the trap of monotony is avoided.
Anyway, enough of the rambling…on to more important things. Namely, the shows I’ve seen since my last post (and prepare yourselves…there are several of them).
1. Dans le pays d’hiver at the MC93 Bobigny
I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a show being called “geometric”, but given the aesthetic of this piece—which recalls, among other things, classical aestheticism and imagery—could stand in as the poster child for it. To be quite honest, given that I saw this piece the same day that I returned from Budapest, I wasn’t in the most active state of mind to be able to sit through a highly stylized/ritualized performance done entirely in Italian, meaning I’d have to read subtitles if I ever had any hope of understanding what was going on. So, yes, I nodded off a bit.
In short, the piece is an adaptation of certain segments of Dialogues with Leuco, written by Cesare Pavese between 1945 and 1947. The dialogues address different topics, all with a decidedly existential tint (the nature of mankind, man in relation to animal, the gods, the flood, etc), that are here undertaken by two actresses—one of whom being the playwright, Silvia Costa, herself—of similar appearance. A third actress—this one blonde in contrast to the other two brunettes—supplements the text with choreography.
As one could probably imagine, the whole thing was incredibly stylized to the point that almost rather than give pause for reflection as to the nature of humanity—or rather the humanity of those on the stage at that time—, it essentially stripped away the human element to favor instead a representation of the ‘sur’-human. Or of the god(s). And so, given that, what is it that we in the audience who are sitting there facing this, are meant to do with it all, other than take in and process the philosophy lesson that was just given to us?
Aesthetically-speaking, however, given my penchant for all things symmetrical, I will say I did quite like the geometry of the space, the clean lines that characterized the set pieces that, even when moved, at times gave the impression of looking into a prism.
2. Sopro at the Théâtre de la Bastille
I’m going to go ahead and say this now: this was my favorite play of the past few weeks.
Tiago Rodrigues is also quite possibly one of my favorite playwrights working now.
Pity he writes in Portuguese, otherwise I would just study him.
Anyway, Sopro, the title of the piece, is a reference to what used to be known as “prompters” (though the original Portuguese, as well as the French “souffleur” are, in my opinion, a bit more metaphorically fitting as titles). Somewhat of an ‘endangered’ role at this point, prompters used to have a steady—if not entirely visible—presence in the theatre, whether it was hiding in the prompter’s box downstage, or tucked away in the wings or behind a set piece, following along with the script, there to save the day should an actor drop a line.
Rodrigues, in his director notes, likened them to the lifeline of a play, that which saves the whole thing from drowning in the weight of an imposing reality that starts to flood in the moment a line is dropped and the already-precarious fiction in the process of construction on stage is thrown even further off balance. They, to paraphrase his words, occupy a space that is neither in the fiction of that being crafted on the stage itself, nor entirely outside it. They are the go-between and the barrier that keeps an already porous spatiotemporal dynamic from completely ripping apart.
And, as of now, they are in danger of being forgotten.
So when Rodrigues announced to the prompter of the National Theater of Lisbon—where he currently has artistic residency—that he wanted to write a play about her, her reaction was, unsurprisingly, a bit incredulous. A prompter, she states—and just a quick note, a lot of this is gleaned from the performance itself—, does their job well precisely by staying invisible. If people recognize or see their presence, they have undoubtedly failed. Besides, she loved the theatre, but she had no intention of ever performing in a play about herself.
The solution, then? She was onstage—yes, this is the actual prompter from the National Theatre in Lisbon—, script in hand. One by one, on a stage that looked more like a site of a theatre in decay with plants bursting through the floor boards than an active, working theatre, the actors would file in, and be directed to their positions. And then, standing behind them, the prompter, Cristina Vidal, spectacles on and index finger following along in the text, would whisper their lines to them, her voice barely audible. Some of the lines were recreations of her words, her conversations with Rodrigues or her memories of starting out in the theatre; others were those of her former theatre director, actors she worked with, roles she had to prompt for (I’m pretty sure some Shakespeare showed up in there, but…French translations of the Bard are not exactly recognizable to me…yet). She, however, remained quiet, yet present in her silence. She was the originator of the words, but the actors were the ones who gave them life.
Yet, as much as I love plays that are about the theatre as a whole—kind of like how Hollywood loves movies about themselves, except for me, the more clichéd versions of this have tended to make me cringe—what drew me into this one in particular was its honesty, and in particular, how it depicted the familial relationship that develops between not just actors but the entire theatre team. It’s hard to show the kind of support and love that comes from that without succumbing to the usual “oh my god we’re just like a big family, let’s hold hands and sing around a campfire I love all of you I found myself, etc etc etc etc”.
One thing I remember really responding well to when I saw Rodrigues’s production of Bovary at Bastille last year was the clever mastery of subtlety in his writing (and by extension, his direction) to communicate with his audience. A similar case of subtle yet effective communication occurred in this piece as well, only this time it rested more on communication through silence than spoken word. Towards the end of the play, the actors—still being prompted by Cristina—comment on how difficult a time the playwright (Rodrigues…yes, we can forgive the meta-ness here I think) has with finishing his works. After musing over, and acting out, a couple different possible endings, they settle on the one that finally, fittingly works, one that at last sees Cristina at the center of her own story.
For a large portion of the narrative preceding this, Cristina talked at length about the woman who directed the National Theatre of Lisbon when she first started on as a prompter there. This woman had, coincidentally, also been working as an actress/director there the first time Cristina attended a show there as a child, and Cristina even credits her with igniting her love of theatre. Over the years, the two worked very closely together and struck up a deep friendship that went beyond the mentor-mentee relationship they started with. Unfortunately, some years later, the director fell ill and, against the wishes of her doctor who counseled her on undergoing surgery (to remove a tumor, I believe), decides to continue on with her performance schedule, just until the end of the season. It was during one of these performances that she collapsed in the middle of the final monologue, never getting to finish her lines and close out the show properly.
So, when asked what she would do if she ever found herself alone on a stage in front of an audience, Cristina (or ‘Cristina’, as it is an actress speaking for her) responds that she would finish that unfinished monologue.
And so, one by one, the actors started to leave the stage, all save Cristina who instead slowly made her way towards center. But before they left, they all shot a quick glance back at her, and if you have ever worked in theatre, you might know the kind of glance I mean. It’s the one that, without the need for words, sends out support, encouragement, love, whatever you want to call it. It’s that thing that is difficult to pin down, but it’s also the thing that has kept me coming back to theatre because I cannot find it anywhere else. And normally it’s a hidden thing, a backstage thing. We—the audience—cannot be exposed to it, lest it expose us to the fact that these people have a history that extends beyond the bounds of the theatre space, one that requires a bit more reality—‘our’ spatiotemporal reality—to seep in than is maybe ideal. But it was there, and then Cristina finally spoke and the lights went out. How fitting.
3. The Veldt (La Savane) at Nanterre-Amandiers
Right…sometimes the best thing to say about something is nothing at all.
I mean, look, if you want to go and play loud, not that excellent, techno music while projecting surtitles on a screen that talk about how some neglectful parents gave their kids a VR room and are now surprised that the kids have just full-on escaped into that room, fine. Go ahead. Honestly though, I’m not really sure I saw the point of all this other than, yeah, maybe don’t just buy your kids’ happiness and also, I don’t really care that you got eaten by a virtual lion (or was it a real lion…who knows).
This one was done in the salle transformable at Nanterre. The whole floor was covered in thin foil. Gives it that whole futuristic look. The titular ‘savana’ was suggested through the use of installation pieces that evoked natural objects—namely, a tree…or rather, a dead tree—, as well as a robot…thing.
Ok I’m going to stop this now before I really start to hate myself.
4. L’inflammation du verbe vivre at La Colline
I feel as though my relationship with Mouawad’s work has become rather…unsteady as of late. On the one hand, his early plays along with his novels (here’s another shout-out to Anima, for its poetic, cathartic violence) are rather brilliant in their reworking (and at times subverting) of classical dramatic tropes. On the other hand, where, for instance, Rodrigues is light and subtle, Mouawad is almost unnervingly heavy-handed. This could partially be attributed to the fact that a lot of his theatre deals with trauma—in particular his own, what with growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War and having to flee the country as a young child—but sometimes I wonder if the weight of his poetics has more to do with the dramaturgical history he has tied himself to, the writers whose recorded adaptations of even older orally-passed stories he both sends up and pays homage to. I had a slight inkling of this last year when I saw Tous des oiseaux (which, coincidentally, is being revived at La Colline in December, though I don’t think I’m in the mood for another four hour session of that right now). That feeling grew stronger with Notre Innocence. I can pretty much cement it now with this piece.
The production is billed as a sort of cinematographic theatre, and given how much time was spent staring at a screen—probably the most frontal position an audience can find itself in—I’d be more inclined to describe it as a film during which sometimes the main character pops out of the screen to talk to us.
The main storyline: Wahid, a playwright of Lebanese origin played by Mouawad himself, is suffering from a combination of writer’s block and lack of inspiration (a little on the nose, right…just wait), following the death of his friend and colleague Robert Davreu. Said friend also happened to be in the middle of translating a complete volume of the works of Sophocles, including one of his least well-known plays, Philoctetes, that Wahid’s company was set to mount in a few months. Unfortunately, given the writer’s temperament towards himself as well as towards the work, things are pretty much at a stand-still.
And so Wahid does what everyone else does when they need to find themselves: he embarks on a solo trip to Greece, whereupon, after unsuccessfully trying to visit Philoctetes’s cave (access closed due to rough waves), he decides to throw himself into the sea in an attempt to reach Hades. Because, as we all know, when one truly needs answers to the seemingly unanswerable questions life throws at us, one must seek the counsel of the dead. Hey, if it was good enough for Odysseus (and yes, we are treated to a reading of the passage in the Odyssey that talks of the moment leading to Odysseus’s decision to visit the Underworld), it’s good enough for everyone else.
Since our hero is in the Underworld, and has successfully crossed the Styx thanks to a couple of friendly fishermen, he needs a guide. Since we are in Greece—as an aside, a genuinely silly moment was when Wahid stands on a hill looking out at the expanse around him before realizing that, yes, Hades is Athens—, his guide is, what else, a taxi driver. Named Leftheris. (In Greek = freedom). Wahid’s journey takes him to a city dump (where the souls of all those who died, forgotten, at Salamis take on the form of seagulls), then to the home of a pack of stray dogs where he finally comes in contact with his soul (a dog, but not just any dog, a dog that speaks Arabic…the others all speak Greek…there’s actually quite a bit of Greek in this play, surprisingly), followed by an abandoned building where he discusses the bleak state of the world with three Greek teenagers, and finally to a sort of abandoned retirement home, the last residency of poets.
All of this, mind you, takes place mostly on screen. Occasionally, Mouawad, as Wahid, slips in and out of slats in between the screen, sometimes to signal a transition from his physical body into the virtual, pre-recorded one, others to disappear completely and thereby let the story move on to whoever, or whatever, was being shown on screen. All the footage was taken from a trip Mouawad took to Greece back in 2013, at the height of the economic crisis.
I’m not sure if I’ve talked much on here at all about certain gripes I have with classicists, or lovers of Greek classical theatre in general, but one of them is a certain dismissive attitude I’ve encountered in conversations with some of these people (mostly men, go figure) towards not necessarily modern Greece, but the history of the country following the classical era. On that note, I will say to this that at least for once we don’t have any lengthy poetic lamenting over what happened to get Greece into the state it (still) is in. There is some of that, but during the aforementioned filmed segment with the teens, they are at least given a chance to say their piece, calling out the inherent hypocrisies in the sacrificing of their generation by those that came before.
Here’s my problem with the filmed segments though: at one point, Wahid makes a side comment about how a screen is a sort of symbol of enduring presence (as in, being of the present moment). Given how the screen is interacted with in this production, I would be inclined to disagree. Instead of presence, what the constant moving back and forth inside and outside the screen did—especially as doing so, one could see the variations and changes in Mouawad’s appearance more clearly—was act as a constant, heavy reminder of the past, of a thing that was done once and that belongs to that particular moment. Conversely, if there was any presence in this, it was only in the moments when Mouawad himself was physically on stage, interacting with the flat image on screen and physically “being” in real time. But he was on stage so little compared with the amount of time spent watching the previously-recorded film (which, let’s be honest, tried a bit too hard to be deep at times) that his presence almost seemed like a gimmick in the end.
Oh and speaking of the end, he ends up getting a hold of a box in which is hidden the key to his happiness, the solution to all of his woes.
It’s a pencil.
Of course it’s a fucking pencil.
5. Crash Park, l’histoire d’une île at Nanterre-Amandiers.
We’re going to end on a slightly lighter note—thank god—with the piece I saw last night at Nanterre, this one created and directed by Philippe Quesne, the current artistic director at Nanterre-Amandiers.
I’m going to call this an anthropological/diorama study with a good dose of vaudeville and a dash of cinematic epic-ness à la Spielberg. Part of Quesne’s M.O. is creating works around micro communities, and this one is no different. The basic premise: survivors of an airplane crash find themselves stranded near a mysterious tropical island. The difference, however, between this and other stranded-on-an-island tales is that this group decides, instead of leaving (and, as the program notes suggest, going back to their commercial, monotonous, stressful, lives), to stay and make a home there.
There was very little talking in this play. If any talking did happen, it was usually small chit-chat instead of dialogue deliberately written to advance the plot. No, in this case the stage was a microscope and we were peering in to watch the little “ants” try and figure out their lives.
There was a funny little dance number involving leaves, a makeshift bar set-up inside a volcano that later turned into a club (oh, and a silly cabaret-style song about the mysteries lying inside a volcano that was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the man singing it was doing so while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, silly sunglasses, and an airline pilot’s headset), and a ferocious octopus that threatened at the eleventh hour to destroy everything, but thankfully our little community of characters vanquished him easily.
The various costumes worn by the characters evoked time periods and settings of other ‘deserted island’ tales from the Hawaiian shirts to the 18th century pirate garb worn during the fight with the octopus. At one point, a character picked up a megaphone to announce that the ‘duty free’ cart was open, offering a selection of books including Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, Utopia, Lord of the Flies (yes, there is a theme). In the end, the characters went to sleep inside the plastic volcano—whose plasticity and artificiality was increasingly emphasized throughout the production, particularly through the demonstration that it was easy to take apart and ‘convert’ into a new space—to the tune of Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon”. What a quaint way for us researchers in the audience to leave our subjects on.
And that’s it for the plays of the past couple of weeks. Other than that, the one other significant event was my hosting of a small Friendsgiving the day after the actual holiday. I grabbed one and a half roast chickens, and whipped up some stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Other friends provided veg, cheese, dessert, the much-needed cranberries for the sauce, and wine (of course). It was, perhaps, one of the more cozy of Thanksgivings I’ve had in recent memory (I think crowding around a tiny table to eat helped with this a bit).
Until the next (massive) theatre post, my readers!