Written for CultureWars.org.uk
Right, let's get this straight; “site-specific theatre” is “theatre” that is “specific” to a “site”. It is not simply taking a bunch of performers and dropping them anywhere not purpose-built for performance that might superficially appear to bear some relation to the theme of their work.
So, sticking Grupo XIX de Teatro's Hysteria (no, not the Terry Johnson play, nor the Total Theatre Award winner from 2006), a work about the privations suffered by women institutionalised as mentally ill in 19th Century Rio de Janeiro, into the bright, airy, echoey Grand Hall of St Bart's is about as unspecific as it gets.
In fact the setting works against the piece, since the hall is decked out with wooden panels bearing the names of countless benefactors who donated money to the hospital. All this evidence of selfless generosity and Christian charity conflicts with the apparent tales of repression and Catholic dogma heaped on the Brazilians. Furthermore, there is no apparent connection between the venue and mental health patients. And it's not only the outward appearance of the hall that works against the piece; the acoustics and ambience of the hall could not be less suited to performance. Certainly not to a piece clearly not made without such a high-vaulted cavernous space in mind.
Beyond this there are profound problems with the piece itself. Granted many of these stem from inaudibility thanks to a combination of the abysmal acoustics and incredibly thick accents, but the problems seem to start a long way before that. The 90 minute piece seems to have no discernable structure. Instead, having divided the audience along gender lines with the men seated in raked seating on one side of the hall and the women on benches and the floor in a semicircle facing them around the performing space, the five performers drift about the women reading them fragments of letters and interacting with them in various ways from intimate conversations and questions to, at one stage, a large scale hokey-cokey.
In the main it is pretty interminable stuff. The general drift is that women weren't happy to be locked up, that some of them were pretty mad and others less so; that the institution had some fairly fixed ideas about female sexuality and behaviour thanks to its Catholic basis, and that the women locked up still had internal lives and desires of their own. Despite the care and seriousness manifestly invested in the work, the whole really fails to come off in quite spectacular fashion, leaving audience members awkwardly looking at each other across the fully lit hall as they realise they're stuck for the next hour and a half.