Monday, 7 May 2012

How Long Is This? [The Theatre of Will Stuart] -- Judith E Wilson Drama Studio, Cambridge :: Friday 27th April 2012

Though he is ostensibly the Judith E Wilson dramatist in residence for the duration of the academic year, this day of works by, and responding to the theatre of Will Stuart, marked his first public appearance in Cambridge during that year: perhaps, after the reported extravaganza of pieces presented at the 2011 Miscellaneous Festival, he needed a breather. The day opened at 11AM with his greatest hit – premiered, I believe, at the 2009 Misc. Fest., on which occasion the lead role was memorably ‘played’ by Justin Katko (tho’ the notion of playing roles is of course very much complicated in and by Stuart’s practice). Said ‘hit’ is the half-hour or so theatre piece ‘Transfigurations’ – and while the elements out of whose fabric it is woven (this probably not being the best metaphor) are fairly easy to describe, their ramifications and dynamics take a lot longer to fully grapple with (I’m still doing it; since I first saw it, three years ago, it will occasionally pop into my head as an unsolved conundrum, a source of thought usefully generated from the frictive frustration and strangeness inherent in any engagement with its deceptively ‘clear’ surface). The play’s contents then, in brief: one participant (I’m not sure the word ‘actor’ is really appropriate here – by which I don’t mean to denigrate those who actually performed, but to highlight the ways in which Stuart’s is a very different proposition from the usual theatrical models) runs at full-tilt, back and forth across the breadth of the performance space, yelling ‘THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE ARE COMING’; another stands at the back of that space, mute and unmoving (apart from the inevitable suppressed laughter, which almost seems to be an anticipated, tho’ unwritten part of the role), holding a placard adorned with the single word ‘AROUSED’; a third, the main focus, sits centre stage, beginning by reciting a portion of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, complete with knee-rug, before switching into a portion of Aileen Wuornos’ court testimony, in which she describes killing the man who has been torturing and raping her; the performer (on this occasion, female, tho’ the role appears to be gender-neutral) then stands to recite the lyrics to JLS’ ‘One Shot’ in some sort of sync with the sound of the song itself, blaring out in its fully glory, or otherwise. All fall silent as the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ is p(l)ayed in full; the apocalyptic messenger steps to the front and recites the words to an advert for Lindt chocolate, and the play ends.

That artifice plays a role here should not be in doubt; this being further highlighted by Stuart’s presence at the back of the stage, handing out props and giving cues, and by the fact that many lines were recited from visible scripts. This is not necessarily a ‘bad’ artifice, an artifice that draws critical attention to its own insincerity (tho’, in the case of the Lindt advert, of course, it might be): for instance, the afore-mentioned interchangeability of gender, both in terms of the Pinter / Wuornos / JLS figure and the silently aroused guard (both male in the 2009 production; both female in the 2012 afternoon performance (and I believe, male and female in the evening rendition)), would seem to be at once a move away from gendered stereotyping and a critical engagement with such stereotyping, with questions of vulnerability and victimhood and of what it means to voice the testimony of another, to appropriate another’s language of pain for ostensible purposes of parodic de-contextualisation. (Consider further: what difference does it make that it’s a solo female performer who rehearses the arm pain of ‘In Despite?’)

These questions of artifice and de- or re-contextualisation were central to Ian Heames’ paper on ‘Transfigurations’, originally presented at a conference on literature and pop music, and focussing specifically on Stuart’s use of JLS, understood adamantly not as parody of capitalist pop or those equally ‘stupid’ recipients who uncritically swallow it whole. Such a position would be a quasi-Adornian critique that risks sliding over into mere class contempt: while the ignorant masses lap up X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or the barely-now-remembered Pop Idol, we can dig our Boulez, and ironically laugh at their poor taste (tho’ of course to attribute X-Factor love to the entire working class is equally contemptuous – much of the most vital avant-popular music of the previous century emerges precisely from a working class base – and to criticise the banalization of emotion and the smoothing over of difficulty or struggle or contradiction into the shinily-packaged, the quick-burst affirmation or melancholic pleading of yet another identikit chart single, is a perhaps necessary, though difficult task (and, furthermore, one that’s not often attempted beyond more than a simple affirmation of what we’re all supposed instinctively to know: that this type of pop is bad and nefarious and contemptible and all the rest of it)). For Heames, then, Stuart’s deployment of ‘One Shot’ is a means of asking what ‘sympathy’ we could actually muster for the feelings the song, and other songs like it, rouse so differently in different individuals, notwithstanding the criticism that pop songs of a certain type homogenize felt response into predictable pattern(ing), aspirations within the capitalist frame of allowed leisure or love, or their attendant impossible celebrity aspiration syndrome (the kind of dream that is, indeed, encouraged by precisely those sorts of talent shows which propelled JLS to their moment of spotlit fame and influence: a notion of a kind of heaven on earth that you could have now, without radical social transformation – capitalism’s utopic cod-promise, forever deferred into pop’s exhortation or yearning to take what you want, because, even if “you’ve only got one shot,” you can have it, whether thru lottery luck or meritocratic striving). This point would seem similar to Marx’s take on religion in ‘The German Ideology’: the aim is to liberate society so that the needs to which religion gives expression are met without the need for their subsumption into a comforting and compensatory religious framework. Neither religion’s nor pop songs’ expressed urges are exactly falsely expressed within the frame of religion or pop, then, but are part of both forms’ very structure, their formal structures of desire and ‘feeling’, and in this light, Stuart’s work seems far more than the initial cheap joke it could seem, far more a serious engagement with, again, that ‘sympathy’ we could have for or with those urges.

Tho’ the advertised ‘discussions’ at the end of each section most often turned into breaks for food or coffee or intermission chat, J.H. Prynne (in a day-long attendance that is a mark of the interest and serious intent locally generated by Stuart’s work) did start a mini-debate as he queried Heames’ use of the phrase ‘deeper logic’ w/r/t pop music, Heames agreeing that this might suggest a false separation between surface and ‘depth’, or sincerity: pop, as it is used in Stuart’s play, is more of a feedback loop, where in is also out, where sincerity and depth cannot be easily entangled from each other, if at all. There is no detached, elevated authorial ‘deployment’ of the material; though the audience’s laughter contains ironic recognition, that recognition second-guesses an intended irony on the part of Stuart that is not present in his own usage. Evi Heinz’ earnest or faux-earnest spoken-karaoke delivery of ‘One Shot’s’ lyrics, with its slight stumbles and halts and missed-timings (at least, in the afternoon performance of the play which I witnessed), was not so much the appearance of real, felt spontaneity; rather, it added imperfection to JLS’ auto-tuned sheen: the imperfection, perhaps, that the listener brings to the perfect product, which imperfection is precisely where any of the ‘sympathy’ that Heames identified might lie – though to describe this as attributable ‘sincerity’ on the part of Stuart or Heinz would, of course be stupid. Maybe the feedback loop is dependent on room-mood and audience biography – the complex interweaving, perhaps clashing network of expectation and social background and felt engagement that they might bring to the performance: and here, alongside Transfiguration’s use of JLS, we might place the time-trial task set in Heinz’ CorresponDANCES, in which performer and audience attempt to blow-up a giant inflatable dinosaur before an extended recording of the Jurassic Park theme tune, and variations thereof, came to its close. Is this actually participation as a kind of communality? The elation and party game panic that the dinosaur challenge infectiously rouse(d) in those participating was in some sense real (witness Heames’ face reddening with effort, or James MacNamara causing his own lip to bleed), even as the piece satirized any ‘togetherness’, that ironization perhaps the condition for this togetherness to be real, to be glimpsed without the cloying cover of a false hippy all-in-this-togetherness, man…And it is laughter that draws one in, a kind of glee mixed with anxiety at the accomplishment of what is accepted as a ridiculous task, but whose accomplishment suddenly comes, in that moment, to seem almost desperately important, the laughter arising from a recognition of the sheer delirious and somehow utterly joyful absurdity of that emotional charge: well, maybe this is no more than what happens in the party games you might play with your friends (certainly before you reach your teens, and sporadically after, tho’ drinking games don’t engender the same kind of innocent, or ‘innocent’ solidarity). But how often does that kind of emotional register ever even enter theatre? Perhaps it could only happen here because the audience at that stage was so small, the interaction occurring on a manageable level, that separation between the elect few on stage and the select or willy-nilly audience mass less apparent than it might otherwise have been: there might then be a readiness to participate less tinged by feelings of embarrassment or the risk of public foolishness (leave that to the actors) – because, after all, the audience always performs itself, to a certain extent (like the clubber checking themselves out in the mirror; cast a quick glance over your fellow theatre attendees to see if they’re laughing as much as you, to see how the cool kids are reacting), and the kind of performance or participation that Heinz asked of it, by placing that performance on the surface, and by transforming it into something joyful and open, rather than furtive, unconscious, or closed, was a liberation of this desire, as well as a questioning of how far it might really be taken. Well, in any case, watching J.H. Prynne blow up almost an entire four-foot inflatable dinosaur was a nigh-on unsurpassed public event.

Interval. Films, by Heames (the script a monologue by Stuart, delivered by poet Peter Gizzi) and by Stuart (sock-puppet unemployment more-than-whimsicalities), unfortunately projected from a laptop with live spoken subtitles, rather than in full-screen glory, due to technical issues. I somehow neglected to take notes on these during the train journey in which I took notes on everything else; so, apologies, no more here will be said.

The notes resume. There follows another Interval. Kat Griffiths then performs a ‘Performed Love Poem’, a monologue of a very different sort to Heinz’ ‘CorresponDANCES’: in a variety of accents, some sort of story would seem to emerge about love failure, in a staged drunken haze which involves dancing that ranged from the wildly enthusiastic to the despairing, eating coffee granules washed down with wine, breaking an egg, telling an absurd-desperate anecdote about masturbating against a lamp-post on the way home from a party after yr love interest gets a boyfriend, and a final reading of the love poem in question; all this an intense, even performance-art-tinged ‘baring all’ coming up against artifice in aware, maybe even dialectical, interplay – as in Stuart, those elements of real or imagined or apparent ‘sincerity’ both lending the work its power and being satirized, ironized. (Those words don’t, of course, really fit; this theatre wants a new vocabulary for its negotiations which for the moment I’m not quite sure how to construct.)

Now Ollie Evans’ first performance, a variant on a short piece I’d first seen him deliver a couple of weeks ago at the ‘Now, Microtheatres’ evening in London’s Five Years Gallery. Evans lies down on the stage, covered by a rug, and with a copy of Finnegans Wake as a pillow, while a tape plays his voice meta-speculating on the live situation, the potential dynamics of the then-future performance, the ethics of this enterprise, &c., while considering art as work, or not work (‘how to scab your own strike’). (Given that F.W. is the subject of Evans’ Ph.D thesis, its unobtrusive pillow-deployment allows a further element to creep in, relevant, no doubt, to all us academy-encrusted students and teachers of ‘radical’ literature, our safety note, the status of our work as work or as isolated, cocooned play.) The apparent spontaneity (I apologize for constantly having banal resource to these tired and inadequate deskriptors: I’ll try to do better next time) of the tape here negated by its deployment as an almost automatically de-humanized pre-recording to which the audience are held in thrall; so, again, that push and pull with and between expectation and frustration and meta-anticipation that is so central to Stuart’s work.

‘In Despite’, the second Stuart piece, playing on pain and boredom with meticulously stringent manipulativeness. Evi Heinz clutches her arm and complains about the pain or ache shooting up it which she just can’t get ride of; for nigh-on fifteen minutes, with the word ‘ow’ punctuating every other sentence, and sometimes, it seems, every other phrase. Irritation, cod-sincerity, restriction, taken to a real extreme of challenging apparent banality. And the entry of quasi-theology at the end, probably not entirely as parody (meditations on infinity, what it would mean, after the end of the universe as we know, for things or people or selves to still be in existence; and the singing of ‘Silent Night’). Pain here is not the one tragic event, but the extended (non-)event of continued and non-ignorable suffering: now here a whole discourse of Levinasian attentiveness, even anti-Imperialist in dimension, opens itself up, but I’m not sure that to extrapolate further would further the play’s cause or really do more than smooth over its jagged irritations (which, in their own way, are perhaps more of a challenge than Transfiguration’s).

So onto Ollie Evans’ third performance (to skip the chronologic for a moment). Preparation and starting, or not starting. A completely improvised, blank-state beginning (this of course a misnomer, as Evans wd realize, for it itself is a concept subject to some sort of pre-cognition): Evans moving around, as if enacting last-minute set- and check-up details, before the performance proper can begin. Which of course it both does and doesn’t; these are already the constitutive elements of the performance. Evans finally asking Stuart, from performer to audience, about his practice. Stuart’s reply: that he is aiming towards a Keston Sutherland-esque obsession (w/r/t to three essays in which K.S. (re)works (around) the same idea consecutively, consumingly). (This section might, I suppose, have been construed as the advertised ‘discussion’ sections of the day in the end making it onto the stage.) Here I get to thinking (again) about the Drama Studio as a space, prompted by Evans’ movement in and out of doors with various paraphernalia (chairs, a microphone and stand, coats and props), the back-stage both back- and on-stage, as tends to happen, In The Studio. This performative non-performance also perhaps a parody of Evans’ familiarity, With The Studio. I ask: to what extent is the power I feel in much of this work (both on Will Stuart Day and in previous Days and Events in the studio) to do with having cultivated a space where the questions the work addresses can be allowed to build and develop, performance to performance, not as an accumulated ‘body of works’, or the diverse bodies of work of the various performers who perform there (& tho’ these bodies of work, whether enacted there or elsewhere, are no doubt enabled or influenced by the space itself), but as questions you feel you can ask, that the audience or the space give you permission to ask, and that they have been, or might be, thinking about? Which is also perhaps constriction; at some point don’t you have to break out of what has become the cocoon of a safe-(lab-experiment)-space, to inform your interaction in the outer and upper world with it? Or do you always need that separate space for experimental testings, like the performer’s magic circle (derived from originally-medieval, now Lecoquian French buffon practice) that Stewart Lee describes in his (essential) book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’? Except here the whole play is about the lack of that kind of delineated safe cut-off, even if it is always circumscribed within a particular room: what does it mean, then, to talk of ‘risk’ here? How far can risk go before it turns merely into a strategy-board-game in which the pieces are moved around in familiar frisson? How many more questions? But yet, the Drama Studio’s programme is diverse: not just theatre-makers, but poets, musicians, film-makers. This isn’t a trendy inter-disciplinarity, but emerges out of particular work (or play; or plays), not from arts-council-funding schematics, plots, diagramm’d pre-anatomies draining out the live blood of living encounter. So Cage or Adorno of Keston Sutherland or Prynne can all be brought within the frame of reference, that frame expanded out to include them, and to include JLS and hymns and toy helicopters (see below): again, not as a trendy or uncritical togetherness, but because these things are all in the performers’ and the audiences’ lives and minds, of which this work is one textural element (and even vice versa).

The notes dribble and drabble out (I’m not here working to a conclusion, I can’t muster the required energy at the moment). Alors, finalement: The Remains of the Day. Evans’ second performance, the repeated variation of a line from Finnegans Wake (“I can do as I like with what’s me own”), turned into Minton- or MacCaffrey-esque sound poetry, stretched and multiplied and humorously twisted. ‘Iphigenia’, which finds Stuart reading a letter from JH Prynne to John Wilkinson, regarding Wilkinson’s poem of the same name: the figure of the helicopter recurring as trope in that letter, Stuart’s reading ‘accompanied’ by Heames’ flying of remote-controlled toy helicopters around the space and at the reader. Some sort of dizzying height-reach when the helicopter (literally) hits the roof of the Drama Studio arousing temporary mild vertiginous feelings, tho’ this effect may have been localized to no one else in the audience. Heames’ poem ‘For Will Stuart’, the last thing I caught before I had to leave, written after receiving the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death thru Stuart’s poem on that topic: what it might mean for poetry to be the news, with full affect and difficulty built in beyond bland fronting and evasion. “After the United States the United States.”

And after Will Stuart?

[Check this write-up for clear-sighted summary trimmed of the above's excessive verbiage]