Sunday 4 October 2015

La Mélancholie des Dragons – HOME, Manchester

[seen 02/10/15]

Fuck! Yes! This is what we’re talking about. *This* is the sort of programming that’s going to put HOME on the map. This is, what? The fifth thing they had in the theatre? (Funfair, Kafka’s Monkey, Axegate and a touring thing by Kneehigh last week that I missed there) But, yeah, this is *such a good bit of programming* that I could forgive six months’ worth of Douglas Gordon. What’s really exciting about it as a transfer/tour, is that these seem to be the only dates its playing (or has ever played) in England unless I’m hugely mistaken. AND LA MÉLANCHOLIE DES DRAGONS WAS QUESNE’S “PREVIOUS SHOW” WHEN I REVIEWED SOMETHING ELSE IN 2010, FFS. (This, at the very least, gives some idea how shit the UK is at transferring international work. 2008 this was made. 2008.) God knows how much it cost to bring over, but if it’s easy/possible, and there’s enough of an audience to make it work (last night’s house was gratifyingly full, and felt really warm and appreciative), then, well, wow. Manchester’s HOME for European theatre, here we come... (directs management to further transfer suggestions...)

But I should write about the show itself, not my excitement about Manchester’s theatre ecology, right? This is trickier. I’ve never felt more like just writing “Oh, you had to be there” and leaving it at that. I mean, that’s true of most theatre anyway, right? But there’s a lot of *taking on trust* you’d have to do if I were to just describe the show (again, as always).

The thing opens with a *really long* wordless sequence in which four heavy metal dudes are sitting in a car in a clearing in some woods drinking lager and listening to various heavy metal songs. Back in Black, Run to the Hills, Master of Puppets... Oh, it’s good. After about ten minutes I was pretty much convinced that if this was the whole of the show, I’d be completely happy with 80 minutes of just this. What’s weird is, even just with this skipping through songs and changing tracks half-way through, quite a palpable sense of *drama* almost emerged. I reckon you could probably do a whole Ibsen like this, without any words at all. Except, I don’t think that’s what was *intended*. I might have been reading subtexts and drama *onto* what was happening, but I wouldn’t swear I was meant to. That’s one of the fascinating things about this piece, the way that it’s both entirely without drama or dramatic structure, and at the same time, it really does have all that. It’s properly amazing. It is, I swear, 110% “Postdramatic” and literally the most entertaining thing you’ve seen all year. It is possibly also one of the most inexplicable – like *why* is this entertaining? Why it is possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a theatre (certainly this year)? Why did I definitely cry laughing at least five times, and have pretty much non-stop giggles? AND STILL THINK IT WAS BASICALLY A GREAT PIECE OF ART AND THEATRE?

I guess it has a lot to do with irony/not-irony, and some incredibly deadpan performances.

The basic set up is eight men wearing long-hair wigs and kind of heavy metal fan clothes showing an older woman some stuff that they’ve got in their trailer. They have a kind of shtick about it being a carnival, or funfair. I won’t go through it, but they’ve got a little water fountain, a library of books that (brilliantly) explain pretty much the whole show we’re watching, artistic references, kind of folkloric contexts, they’ve got a digital projector and a laptop which they demonstrate... See I told you explaining why this was funny (let alone magical or ART) was going to be tough.

There’s also something about the fact that despite being repeatedly, ongoingly gentle throughout, the entire scenario looks like it could just turn into something incredibly violent and dangerous throughout. Philippe Quesne and Gisele Vienne are both directors at Nanterre-Amandiers, after all. (And, Christ, why aren’t we all just going there on Eurostar ALL THE TIME? Fuck Berlin...) And it’s almost like This is How You Will Disappear is a direct reply to this piece (“We put a smoke machine in the woods”!) I’ll admit, I watched it thinking it was the other way around (that Dragons was the reply to Disappear...) which made a lot more sense. But, yeah, there’s this continually, ongoing tingling sense that The Very Bad Thing is only just being kept at bay; a kind of terrible, ancient, atavistic, *nameless fear* thing. And, to be honest, the show doesn’t stint on the uncanny. One near-climax involves several vast (especially on HOME’s relatively small stage) inflatables upended in the fake-darkness (well, it’s also real darkness, but you know what I mean), looming over this little older lady standing in a snow-covered clearing in the woods.

So: funny we’ve mentioned; the edge of darkness we’ve mentioned. The last unaccountable thing is the fact that it’s also incredibly moving. Somehow heart-burstingly gorgeous, glorious and generous all at once. The deadpan-ness and irony somehow In No Way interferes with the just sheer idiotic beautiful joy of the thing. There’s something somehow lovely about them just admitting to everything being theatre, to the muted “Oh, wow!” that the older lady comes out with every time the people plonk another new thing in front of her. You (well, I) spend the whole time giggling away at how absolutely ridiculous it is, and yet, at the same time, it kind of speaks to the whole enterprise of creating any kind of art which hopes to have any effect at all on its audience. There’s a really brave kind of owning of kitschy-ness, at the same time as owning a real affection for it. A key *key* to the show is Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, which at one point they kind of recreate, with the older woman up a ladder having bubbles and a smoke machine directed at her. And there’s a kind of Where The Wild Things Are-ness to the whole too. Like this little woman is Max surrounded first by these hairy metaller types, and then by the hulking great black inflatable sculptures...

Apparently the show has had a bit of a Marmite reaction, which always makes the experience of writing about it feel a bit more pinched. You don’t want to come across as feeling all superior for what, at the end of the day, is just something appealing to your sense of humour. If there’s one problem with arts criticism in the UK, it’s advocacy being too arch. This wasn’t a matter of being clever enough, or artsy enough to “get it”. And, sure, the way *I* read it is largely in connection to other things I’ve seen in theatre, as well as other art (that’s both the job, and a side-effect of the job). BUT, I honestly don’t think that’s the only way to read it. There’s a lovely (if arch) Howard Barker quote about laughter being (I paraphrase) “unbidden collapse (of language?) at spectacle of something-or-other” (grateful if anyone can find it in Arguments For a Theatre, I just looked and couldn’t). This, in a wholly non-Barker way, felt like exactly that. Just elements of the comic lined up just so. And a whole theatre-full of people erupting in giggles – all at different moments – on a friday night, while at the same time, still hushed by moments of this kind of really tender loveliness.

Yeah. This felt like something extraordinary and special.  I'd encourage you to go see it, but it's done now. Which, yes, does feel like a massive shame.  I'd have happily gone again... 

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