Saturday 5 June 2010

Reykjavík - Old Town Hall Galleries (Pulse '10)

Jonathan Young’s Reykjavík is at least well made. It suffers from all-in-white, floaty, wanting-to-be-Complicité-ness (there really should be a single noun), but it’s well designed, well lit, nicely thought-out and well executed.

The problem is, the title of the show might as well be “my failed gap-year romance (in Reykjavík)”. Not knowing Young personally, it’s impossible to tell how much of the narrative is fictionalised, romanticised, or just plain made-up. Not very made-up, one suspects, given that his programme biog puts him in the same places at the same time as the narrator (reading the Pulse programme blurb, it claims Reykjavík asks: “how far can we trust our own memory.” We might be better off asking how far we can trust Mr Young's).

Even these needn’t have been a problem had the subject been different. But one suspects that this really is the true story of how Jonathan Young went to Lecoq, or Gaulier, or wherever in Paris, met an unhappily-married Icelander with two children, had an affair, and then went to live with her for a few years in Reykjavík.

In fairness, the piece does demonstrate a desire to look outward. It tries for same sort of fairy tale of experience that Milan Kundera writes, crossed with the sort of meditations on internationality that Complicite’s more John Berger-influenced stuff does. But while it keeps coming back to the performer’s own relationship, it feels like it’s never really going to free itself from the shackles of solipsism.

Partly,perhaps, it’s because it refuses one of fiction’s chief pleasures: guilt-free moral judgement. With fiction we can assess a character’s successes and failings quite bluntly. It is more awkward to do so when the “character” is standing in the room with you, smiling at you ingratiatingly. Similarly, fiction allows a writer to create characters and situations for us; just telling an audience your side of events which actually took place doesn’t, no matter how much you dress it up with the books you’ve read or the places you’ve been.

The whole dynamic throws theatre’s usual cosy boundaries slightly off-kilter. And instead of being given permission to be charmed by actors’ performances of characters, you’re basically being asked to actually like and engage with the actual person who, at many points in this promenade performance, is actually standing just a couple of feet away.

The piece doesn’t ask “how far can we trust our own memory?” half so much as “how much of Jonathan Young can you tolerate?” I’m sure he’s a nice bloke and everything, but it seems like a failure of theatre that I feel the need to even say as much. Except that everything here seems so manifestly personal, that it’s impossible not to get the feeling you’re reviewing the bloke, not the show.

And after a while, I (and *I* resent all these personal pronouns that this sort of show ends up making *me* use) started to find Young pretty suspect. After all, there’s nothing especially admirable about embarking on an affair with a married mother-of-two, having a foreign girlfriend, or sincerely believing nothing is ever your fault, which is pretty much what the contents boil down to. Stir in some infuriating nods to Buddhism, stuff about the I Ching and a lot of godawful, earnest, singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar music and you’ve got a recipe for spending a very long hour with someone who I suspect I’d tolerate for about three minutes if I met them at a party. And in Reykjavík, one isn’t even given the vodka which presumably got the Icelanders through it all.

Ordinarily I’d be wary of offering such a blunt personal response, but the show is so bluntly personal, that it seems somehow unavoidable. Partly it’s the insufferable egotism of it all. I’m pretty sure in the hands of another performer (the one I thought of was Unlimited’s Chris Thorpe), the writing might acquire a much more likeable edge. And there are some nice touches in the staging. The audience is dressed in white overalls to watch the piece/wander round the installation, and at one point is required to don frosted-glass goggles to experience aurora borealis style lighting effects. As well as having a pleasing ambient lightshow, mingled with that mildly frightening sensation of standing in the middle of the room and not being able to see a thing, this has the welcome effect of not being able to see Jonathan Young smiling at you for a few minutes.

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