Tuesday 21 July 2015

J.U.D.I.T.H – Flare at Martin Harris Centre, Manchester

[seen 16/07/15]

Shown as one part of the Future Flares International programme, J.U.D.I.T.H by Marja Christians and Isabel Schwenk of Hildesheim University, Deutschland, has already been seen at the 100° Berlin Festival and won a prize there. As such, it’s interesting to see it repositioned for its first UK showing in terms of its creators’ still-at-uni status.

What the piece is, is a fierce deconstruction/staging of famous Enlightenment German Playwright Christian Fredrich Hebbel’s 1840 text, Judith. Hebbel is quite an iconic deal in Germany playwriting history. My guess is that he comes in fourth behind Schiller, Goethe and Lessing (in pre-C20th terms) – he’s the Hebbel for whom the Hebbel-am-Ufer theatres are named, after all. In Britain, Judith is perhaps more familiar to us as the play by Howard Barker (who also rewrote Lessing’s Minna), the paintings, or from Horizontal Collaboration, seen at the Traverse in Edinburgh last year.

What’s interesting to note, before we kick of saying what the show *does* do, is noting what it doesn’t do. Despite the play’s striking potential relevance – unsurprisingly, given Germany’s history approx 100 years after the play was written – revivals of this play about a Jewish woman in Israel beheading the general of the army besieging her city are incredibly rare. And this version absolutely strips out all ethnic and religious content. This is a piece about gender.

This is a piece about gender in the modern world, and modern theatre’s relation to its history. One of first best moments of the piece is the bit where one of the women says: “The next scene is just some men talking about women so we’ve cut it”. There’s also a brilliant bit, early on, where they not only situate themselves as women, but also self-identify as "white, cis-gendered, and *educated*” (the less-squeamish German equivalent of “privileged”; university education itself being free there). There are many, many other great moments, though. The whole aesthetic is about as lo-fi as it gets. I think the entire thing might have been performed under house lights and workers (the house lights of the stage, basically). There is one spotlight on stage on a stand, and one of the women points it at the other sometimes when she does stuff on the cross-bar hanging from the lighting rig.

One of the first things to happen is the women both coming into the audience and sitting amongst us, and talking frankly about how they and their friends used to make themselves come when they were children. It’s incredibly frank, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually talk about the female orgasm in a theatre quite so directly. Let alone starting the discussion in childhood experiences.

Another thing that happens, quite often, is that the women take off all their clothes (they might put their socks and trainers back on, because practical). They do this in a way that is entirely uncontroversial, straight-forward, and not-at-all-sexualised (or “funny” or “rude”, if you’re English). We tend not to see so much of that on our stages, and certainly not in student work. Indeed, one of our leading (feminist, forward-thinking) directors once wrote a memorable piece in which she declared: “I always feel a bit queasy at the notion of people getting undressed on stage”.  J.U.D.I.T.H (and a million other pieces like it, mostly from the mainland) demonstrate precisely why such an attitude is insupportable in a progressive theatre. Apart from anything else, it demonstrates that actually any and all clothes are more loaded and symbolic than no clothes at all. That no clothes is, after all, just the most basic form of humanity. And people just getting on with doing some stuff after taking the clothes off takes all of about two seconds to get used to (probably even fewer in countries where nudity isn’t such an astonishing, sexualised taboo).

That’s not to say the show isn’t provocative in other ways, though. The meeting of Holofernes and his executioner-to-be, includes Judith dressing up in a sort of dildo-mohican harness, a bit like those strange costumes made, worn and photographed by Rebecca Horn. At another stage, the other Judith (assume that both performers are Judith sometimes, I did), crosses the stage with an armful of hollow dildos which she pops into one another to form a sort-of dildo daisy-chain garland. And then gleefully unpops them all again. Possibly around the point of the beheading.

There’s also a bit where one of the women sings into the vagina of the other one. For quite a while. Schubert, I think, but I could be wrong. This obviously sounds like the sort of thing that would have Quentin Letts releasing the safety catch on his Browning. But in practice, it’s rather charming and sweet (although it might have further resonance if you knew what the song was and what the words were – it’s the only bit performed in German, and it’s also pretty muffled).

But, yes. It they were handing out prizes for Most *Avant Garde* Thing then on so many levels, even if just by dint of checking so many boxes, I think J.U.D.I.T.H would be walking off with an armful of the things.

Something I did find fascinating about the piece, though, was how resolutely *un*like regular State Theatre German theatre it felt. Even though the latter makes all the same noises about deconstruction and onstage nudity and etc., this definitely felt much more related to “Live Art” practice, or contemporary-dance-pieces-with-speech-in-them than even the least conservative German theatre. I find that gap very interesting.

Am I sad that this isn’t the Flare piece I had to review for the Guardian? Yes, and also very much no.

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