If I found Billinger & Schulz's Romantic Afternoon fascinating, it was primarily for the contribution it made to my thoughts on the recent English-language or at least British/Anglophone debate across several blogs and Facebook walls on the subject of “narrative” or “story” (this article links to the key recent texts on the subject).
The starting points of several contributors' positions can be seen in the following comment under the above-linked blog:
“Plays are linear. We can't get away from that given our current relationship to the laws of physics: plays consist of moments, of events, as we move in one direction in time whilst perceiving them. Narrative is not just a natural but, I'd argue, an inescapable response to that arrangement in anyone with any significant memory or attention span... But that's what we do with data that we receive in succession.”
Yes, this does stipulate “plays” rather than “theatre” or “a performance”, but given the way in which the properties of experience of linear time are figured, the distinction doesn't seem especially exclusive or important.
Why is this relevant? Well, because that argument was stuck in my head at the time. And because Romantic Afternoon struck me as being one of the most defiantly non-narrative pieces of “theatre” / “performance” / whatevs. I've ever seen (defiant is the wrong word in these context, since no one here seems to be having that argument, but..).
To describe: The stage action of the piece consists entirely of the six performers on stage – three men, three women – kissing one another. For 45 minutes.
Ok, that glosses over a certain amount of moving around, time spent standing apart, the bits where they swap partners, and the leanings toward certain moments of disinterested choreography. But that's the main event. Bodies on stage with their mouths variously pressed against those of another. But what was fascinating was the extent to which the piece seemed to be actively seeking to exclude the possibility of “a story” happening.
Yes, the piece was – as per the laws of physics – theoretically experienced (at least by me) with my body and “mind” moving forward in time with the performance taking place in front of me, with all the performers also moving forward in time – and ageing – at precisely the same speed. Although, I imagine that Einstein might have amusedly noted that the time was passing significantly more quickly for the six performers on the stage than for anyone watching them.
Back to “story”, though. The way in which the action on stage took place was able to suggest that the performers were not necessarily “playing” the same person from one exchange of saliva to the next. At the same time, there was never any suggestion that they were anything other than themselves. But not an actual “themself” - so to speak. At no point was there ever any sense of who these people were in what might, in another context, be called “the world of the play”. There was no sense that these kisses had “back-story”. More importantly even than this, was the sense that none of the actions had consequences. Or at least hardly ever. This was an ongoing performance of some kisses with scarcely a backward glance.
There was also barely ever any performance of anything attempting to pretend actual desire. Equally, though, it wasn't implied that these kisses being performed represented some sort of absence of desire in a postmodern world, either.
Indeed, some of the rolling around kissing, and some of the first, tender tentative steps toward the kisses, did seem to open to the possibility of readings of tenderness. But it felt that that would be largely a process of some very heavy freighting from outside. Very much the projection of the viewer's desire to see that story/feeling manifested much more than something the company had intentionally presented.
Instead, we (the audience) were presented with roughly 42 minutes of six performers not all of whom, if any, had any attraction toward one another, demonstrating kissing of all sorts. Occasionally, in the show's more choreographic moments, they'd even be making out on their own – hands stroking the back of nothing, open-mouthed, tongues wangling away in a void (or, rather, not “in a void”, but the empty space* in front of them on the stage of a performance space).
I say 42 minutes of a 45 minute piece, because at the end, for no discernable reason whatsoever (which isn't to disregard it one iota, nor to refuse an attempt at discerning, not that there need either be reason or that the reason be discernable), the company danced a charming Gap-advert's worth of bouncy dance to the equally inexplicable German children's hit Fred vom Jupiter (see bottom of review). Which I did wonder about in the context of whatever had gone before.
Still, the success of the refusal of narrative was fascinating. What I mean is, even going forward through time with the performers just didn't help. The fact that there were six of them, constantly swapping partners (yes: woman-woman, woman-man, man-man, man-woman, WWM, MMW, WMW, MWM, MWW, WMM etc.), at a rapid enough rate, and far enough apart on the stage, that it was impossible really to keep an eye on all of them at once, and so even if there had been an intended “narrative” or “story” - and I'm not even sure I'd swear that the order of what happened on the night I saw Romantic Afternoon would be what was repeated the next time, or whether that would alter or not the substance of the idea of the piece having a “story” or “narrative” - like some kind of six-way Closer. On acid!* one wouldn't have been able to keep up with it. But I'm pretty sure this wasn't even remotely the case. This was as close to a series of islated moments as its possible to have when the moments occur sequentially in an enclosed space.
What I mean is – the moments – even while being so “of a piece” were so isoloated in meaning from one another, and lacking in that sort of content, that it would have felt utterly pointless to even want to bother placing the context of a story on them. I'm not sure I can put it any more bluntly or clearly than that.
Which feels briefly like it leaves a bit of an England-shaped question-marky hole about what one is meant to do with this piece.
Actually, it doesn't. If there was a “problem” here – or if I brought one with me, or made one up while watching – I'd argue that “problem” was nothing to do with the lack of “story” or “narrative” (see Tremor for a reverse case - I absolutely promise I didn't experience even a tiny bit of story in that either) as the lack of excellence – or perhaps more accurately: focus – on the part of the performers. Two were noticeably just much more alert, and perhaps more energised, trained, or whatever, than the others. And it really made them a great deal more watchable.
It was, however, definitely a mistake to use the same piece by Purcell as Pina Bausch did in Café Müller.
Themes? Themes! Understanding of what the piece might have been driving at – if intentions of driving anywhere were even a remote consideration of the piece – then indications of where or what come more helpfully from the fact of the Freischwimmer Festival's overall theme - “[the private in the public]?”. One could certainly read the piece easily in the light of this, but oddly, despite being such a determinedly illegible piece – and one either whose form or execution made it a pretty hard watch – this possibility of a single strand of explantion feels somehow disappointingly narrow. Perhaps this was also what the piece is about, perhaps it wasn't.
But it ended with this!
Fred vom Jupiter.
* thanks to Chris Goode for identifying and locating where that piece about X+Y on Z comes from – although take a moment to tick off Stewart Lee for his youthful use of the term "prostitute" using his older self (5.30 onward)