[written for Freischwimmer Blog Fight!]
Having written a piece yesterday for the Guardian about deutsches freies Theater [this gives you some idea when I started these damn reviews], it seemed only right and proper that I should go and see some. Emblematic of the difficulties with such labels, the first group I saw as part of last night's Freischwimmer programme were the Swiss-Danish performance duo Chuck Morris.
Roughly speaking, Souvereines is a performance suggested by the idea of “queens” (entirely in the heterosexual, regal sense – neither the unreconstructed, nor reclaimed connotations of the Queer version of the word appear to figure in the translated version – which, we should note is “Souvereines” and not “Königinnen” anyway). It begins with the audience being asked to observe certain protocols before stepping into the auditorium, briefly suggesting a degree of interactivity, which turns out not to materialise. Instead, we're presented with a meticulously timed (the duration of each routine is set out precisely in the accompanying programme), highly stylised performance.
Opening with the two performers (no credit except “Chuck Morris”) sitting bound, back to back, Gemini-style on a kind of mobile sideboard – clad in white body-stockings, with identical blonde hair piled on their heads. It takes a little while to put the words “student drama” (along with all their most unfair connotations) from your mind.
The substance of the piece alternates between spoken text and movement. The text is a list of things “the queen” is. Various contradictory adjectives pile on top of one another. Conflicting accounts? Different queens? One is strongly reminded of the attempts to pin down Martin Crimp's Annie, with shades into Viola's “two lips, indifferent red”. I am also strongly reminded of not doing too badly in a vocab. test far more than of watching a play. No matter. These former elements, mixed in with a quiet vein of gentle ironic humour.
The same can be said of the piece's initial movement sequences, in which descriptions of queens' portraits are posed with faux high-seriousness and courtly, or not-so-courtly (“New York, 1970s”), dance-steps are named and executed.
One (this one, me) is variously reminded of bits from Angela Carter – the pre-occupation with conjoined twins and arcana – in other instances of Alice in Wonderland and at other points, all those student devised pieces about Victorian feminism (whatever happened to those?). Sitting out here in Germany, though, I'm mildly mystified as to why anyone has thought to make a show about queens at all. It feels very remote from one's British associations with the wonderful job our Helen Mirren does (although the Danes still have a Royal Family, yes? Yes). But, perhaps it's a condition of fairy tales, Disney and iconography, though, that the idea of “a queen”is no longer – perhaps has never been – dependent on any sort of a reality. And perhaps that's a lot of the point being made here.
With hindsight, all this felt a bit like pre-amble, and so it turns out to be. The main event turns up in the form of a big dress. Chuck Morris stand back to back, and don the various layers of a regal 18th century dress (think Marie Antoinette). However, both performers are encompassed within the same pannier so that the subsequent petticoats, and silk Robe à la Française have the effect of binding them together one more. There then follows an extended sequence of movement to the already persistent music which recalls both Michael Nyman and Wendy Carlos's previous takes on Purcell, culminating in a gorgeous, perplexing tableaux of one performer, skirted legs aloft, balanced on the back of the other, who is bent double beneath her.
The piece is concluded by something of a postmodern/meta-theatrical step-outside-the-performance in which Chuck Morris talk about the company Chuck Morris.
If I were in the business of trying to draw conclusions, I'd say that there were some fine visual moments on show here, as well as enough charm and ideas for the rest to pass the time. The production values are high, but not faultless (and apparently this premier was plagued by technical hitches). The piece doesn't do a lot of work for you – despite clearly having a subject, bringing a lot to the table, and having a take on it. But apart from the blossoming of music and image, I'm not sure what it really achieves. But I'm equally prepared to believe that's my fault for not working at it hard enough, or coming from the right direction. Who wants star-ratings anyway?
For an interesting second look at the piece through another pair of British eyes – albeit ones which did better in the vocab. test – here's the view of from the seat next to me.
There are also the other Freischwimmer blogs here, here, here, here and here if you can read German or bear what Google translate does to them.