Thursday 16 May 2013

Unsent Postcards: Luxuriant – People’s Palace, QMUL

The best description of Simon Vincenzi’s Luxuriant I can offer is that it is far too much of not nearly enough. And vice versa.

I intend this as a compliment: this is spare, stark, arresting work.

If you want a cheap visual shorthand, imagine David Lynch trying to knock up a cabaret at some point after an apocalypse using only shell-shocked transvestites. That’s kind of how it feels and how it looks.

There is almost painful, potentially infinite iteration of just a tiny sequence of opaque movements. At the same time, there is something sumptuous, almost decadent about just how much it refuses to tell us, about the sheer quality and attention to the detail of this opacity.

The piece opens with a group of men. Jittery. Scampering. They’re on the huge stage of the newly reopened People’s Palace Theatre. They’re clustered round a video camera, skittering this way and that, dressed in tight black t-shirts, pink tights, and, what? Mickey Mouse ears? One of the troupe – with his genitals bound up in shiny black gaffa tape – trembles and preens before the camera, as if making some kind of off-kilter porno.

Then there’s a woman on the stage. She’s dressed in some sort of futuristic tent, or carapace. She speaks, or sings, or screeches, into a concealed microphone, which delays, distorts, flanges and reverberates her voice. Her falsetto Throbbing Gristle-isms echo around the hall.

The audience are stood, scattered about the vast hall of the newly refurbished and re-opened “People’s Palace” hall in the grounds of QMUL. The hall is in near darkness and filled with smoke-machine smoke. The men – Troupe Mabuse, I think we’re encouraged to think of them as – are off the stage now and skittering about the floor in their strange tribal patterns. As a result, there’s a fair amount of shuffling, or sudden getting-the-fuck-out-of-the-way on the part of the audience, lest we be suddenly entangled with six ft of skittering PVC Mickey Mouse.

The piece lasts, what? an hour? an hour and half?

It isn’t “immersive” in the crap sense of the word. There’s no real pretence – or indeed set-up – suggesting that we’re anywhere other than right where we know we are. As a result, it’s strange that at the same time as quite revelling in the sheer copious strangeness of what we’re seeing, we are (or at least I was) inventing sort of “other locations” and “other times” where we might plausibly be watching this work. Perhaps because it is so unlikely that this is precisely what we are doing right now, on a Friday night, in a hall on Mile End Road, with a nice new refurbished bar on the other side of the doors. So we (I) reach for words like “post-apocalyptic” and “Lynchian”.

I’m not sure that’s the whole story, though. Troupe Mabuse’s apparent stated intention or goal or mission is a performance of The Gold Diggers, a 1930s film which I’ve never seen, but which I’m pretty prepared to bet doesn’t look anything like this *at all*.

I kept on being reminded what Nicholas Ridout, who curated this piece, as part of the Peopling The Palace events [a couple of months back, now] at QMUL, wrote as the conclusion of his excellent book Theatre & Ethics. In it, he describes Maria Donata D’Urso performing In Pezzo at the Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon in 2002. She: “is visible, naked, in low light, surrounded by an insect-like scratch and crackle of electronic sound. As she moves her limbs slowly in the subdued and tightly focused pool of light, it soon becomes impossible to make out the relationships between surfaces and volumes... This effect of an apparent separation of the evidence of a human mind (intention) and the actions and organisation of a human body is profoundly unsettling as well as very beautiful.” Ridout is using this description of her performance to illustrate a key part of his thesis:

“The performance appears, at least, to have no interest other than the meticulous presentation of the surfaces of the body to the light. In this regard it may be regarded as having nothing other than aesthetic content. It contains no proposition about the nature of the world, offers no narrative or dramatic encounter or anything that might solicit from an audience any ethical response. There is nothing to be ethical about here.”

This above passage felt crucial as a possible way into understanding Luxuriant. It also felt as if something like the below was also taking place:

“The challenge issued by this work, from the place of the other, is to our conception of what it is to be or have a human body, and to have intentions that make it do things. The human figure, so often the luminous centre of the aesthetic experience and the presence with which the spectator may easily identify, is here shadowed and obscured in such a way as to render it utterly strange to all those human figures who sit in the dark and watch it.”

Ridout’s conclusion from this, citing Levinas and Hans Theis Lehmann among others, is that:

“the event of theatre [should be] approached with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront...

… that theatre [currently, normally] justif[ies] itself in terms of its contribution to an ethical life, might be the very thing that prevents any theatre from meeting such a demand. Theatre’s greatest ethical potential may be found precisely at the moment when theatre abandons ethics.”

Reading Theatre & Ethics back in 2009, I remember finding it difficult to imagine such a piece of theatre (I proposed Andy Field’s the other night i dreamt the world had fallen over as an early working example). I think Luxuriant went a lot further toward perhaps making me appreciate what Ridout is talking about. During the performance itself we’re in a kind of imaginative and ethical freefall (and free-for-all). It is disconcerting, without ever really explicitly making it clear what it is you could, should, or might be disconcerted by.

The sheer oddness of that situation alone – certainly when compared to, say, being spoonfed an easily understood and digested moral dilemma at the Royal Court – feels like some faculty of reason, curiosity, or sheer puzzlement that most theatre feels like it is actively seeking to keep sedated is suddenly, violently being reawoken.

As such, even when flailing around failing to pin the piece down, even just enough to describe and reflect on it, the piece still feels urgent and strange.

[watching the trailer won't help much, but here you are:

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