Postcard from Perth # 53
Perth Festival Week 2: ‘If We Could Turn Back Time’
Barbershop Chronicles, Il n’est pas encore minuit, Hand Stories, Katrina Ballads, Farewell to Paper, To A Simple Rock’n’Roll…Song
A festival is at once a communal act of celebration and of commemoration. The Dionysiad was a celebration of the God’s gifts and a commemoration of his dismemberment and rebirth; the Last Supper was a celebration of the Passover and an anticipation of Christ’s imminent sacrifice; and every Feast Day is held in honour of a Saint’s martyrdom as well as their life and works.
If the works I saw in the first week of the Perth Festival were mostly celebrations in dance, theatre, image, music and song of sheer physical, vocal, visual and auditory presence (or in the case of Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate or the Museum of Water, sometimes sheer survival), then this week I feel as if I’ve delved more deeply, more darkly and with more difficulty into the commemoration of pain, loss, absence and the past.
To paraphrase Beckett, how do we go on when we can’t go on? How do we reconcile justice and forgiveness? How do we work through anger, mourning and reparation? How do we distinguish between what we can and can’t change? How do we maintain our rage, and insist on the necessity for resistance, while at the same time letting go of the past, surrendering to the present moment, and opening up to the future? How do we embrace Nietzsche’s ‘love of fate’ and ‘the eternal recurrence of the same’ without succumbing to conformity or despair? How do we grasp the paradox Gramsci called ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’? These are the some of the questions – political, psychological, spiritual – I’ve been asking myself over the past week in the face of works which turn back to the past in order to try and understand the present, and perhaps move beyond it.
At first blush, Bijani Seibani’s production of Nigerian-British playwright Inua Ellams’ Barbershop Chronicles is a joyous act of celebration. My companion and I entered the Octagon Theatre to find the pre-show in full swing. Rae Smith’s dynamic design saw the generous thrust stage of the Octagon transformed into a minimalist barber shop with little more than a few swivel chairs; on the auditorium walls flanking the stage were brightly coloured signs featuring silhouetted images of hairdressing tools and products and the names of places in London, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe; a network of electrical wires overhead converged above the stage to form the tangled outline of a globe and its continents, with nodal points that lit up in synch with the corresponding sign on the wall as the scenes shifted back and forth from city to city; and music pumped from a sound-desk at the front of the stage being DJ’d by one of the twelve all-male, African-British actors, while the rest were roaming the stage and auditorium chatting, fooling around and enlisting members of the audience to come onstage, take a seat and have their hair cut by the cast. This loosely choreographed mayhem went on for about ten minutes until it segued seamlessly into the opening scene of the play, with the cast coming together at the front of the stage to watch and cheer on a football match on an invisible TV.
This broad, physical, music and comedic energy was maintained as a base-line throughout the show, especially during the scene-transitions, but also in the repartee which constituted the bulk of the action and dialogue, as the actors entered and exited the stage playing multiple characters in six different barbershops from Peckham to Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg and Harare in the course of a single day (marked by the progress of the football game as a unifying dramatic device). Underlying this however was a deeper root-note, which gradually became more insistent across the scenes as their tangled plot-lines began to converge like the electricity wires overhead. Beneath the obvious themes of racial identity and black masculinity was a more universal motif: the loss, guilt or failure of fathers, and the bitterness, recrimination and disappointment of their sons. This applied equally to the more personal storylines, like that of the young London hairdresser whose father (the former owner of the barbershop) is now in prison (and who he eventually discovers has plunged the shop into debt), and the more political ones, like that of the old South African barber who resents the leniency of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the end of apartheid. It turns out that latter character is himself a father who abandoned his son; and this same son turns out to be a customer in the London barbershop, who comes there seeking mentorship in ‘how to be a man’; but we also feel as if an entire generation of ‘sons’ has been abandoned by their father-figures in the form of post-colonial leaders like Amin, Mugabe and Zuma (who was deposed the day after I saw the show).
Of course this is a story as old as politics, families and theatre itself: Agamemnon, Oedipus, Hamlet and Death of a Salesman spring to mind; and the theme of the absent father is central to psychology and even theology. The question then becomes: what do we (or I) do about it? The answer, for Ellams at least, seems to be: reach out to your fellow man (since in this case, the subject and object of the inquiry is very definitely a masculine one); forgive the past; and find a kind of global identity and solidarity in ‘brotherhood’ (in this case, both masculine and ‘black’ – but perhaps we can extend the notion to that of the human, and even the planet).
Ultimately I found Barbershop Chronicles stronger as a production than as a script (the latter seemed overlong and at times overwritten); and some of the performances stronger in physical energy than in psychological or textual nuance; but it got me thinking about globalisation, race, masculinity and especially fatherhood in a world that – for all its apparent ‘connectivity’ – seems more and more fragmented and urgently in search of healing.
The following night, Il n’est pas encore minuit by French ensemble Compagnie XY began even more thrillingly. Two male acrobats entered the vast and undecorated proscenium stage of the Regal Theatre and almost immediately began to fight: no fake punches, but pushing, shoving, grappling, wrestling and throwing each other to the floor with increasing violence. More acrobats entered (twenty-two in all, male and female) and tried to drag the antagonists apart; more fights started; and an all-out brawl ensued. My companion and I began to laugh, then turned to each other in dismay. ‘Why are we laughing?’ she whispered; and I found myself answering, ‘Because it’s the world!’
The brawl gradually resolved itself (with some residual pushing and shoving) into a ragged group-formation, music began to play, and an incredible sequence of acts followed: walking human pyramids three storeys high, standing on shoulders and heads, balancing sometimes on heads, or one leg, or one hand; tosses, leaps, forwards-and-backwards somersaults (initially using no props, later introducing wooden planks on rollers, and finally large wooden boards) and catches (using only interlocked hands); and outbreaks of dancing (based on the Lindy Hop, sometimes solo, sometimes in couples or groups), clowning, teasing and embracing.
I found myself emotionally overwhelmed within minutes. The title of the show – ‘It’s Not Yet Midnight’ – kept echoing in my head. The previous week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had announced that the Doomsday Clock was now two minutes to midnight – closer than it had ever been, and thirty seconds closer than last year, because of the threat of nuclear war, climate change and global disinformation posed by the Trump Administration and others. Misunderstanding, aggression and conflict seemed to be endemic to our species, and perhaps the cosmos; yet at the same time, these performers seemed to be wordlessly saying, we were capable of incredible feats, if we worked together, were disciplined, focussed, vigilant, humble, and trusted each other – and ourselves – as acrobats must. It was never too late to turn back the clock, collectively or individually.
At the end of the show, after the cheers and applause, one of the performers stepped forward. She put on a pair of spectacles – ‘She needs spectacles!’ my companion gasped – and read a message from a piece of paper. She explained that the company was a collective without an artistic director or leader; all artistic and administrative decisions were made by consensus. How was this possible? Because of a simple miracle, difficult but not impossible to achieve. She paused. ‘We agree.’
Hand Stories is the major work in the Festival by its 2018 Artist-in-Residence, Yeung Fai, a fifth-generation traditional Chinese glove puppeteer based in Paris; the Festival has also commissioned The Puppet Show Man, a revival of a show he originally created in Bolivia, to tour local schools, community organisations, hospitals and other non-theatre spaces; and he’s also running a workshop for local artists in collaboration with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.
I saw Hand Stories last Wednesday night at the relatively small, nondescript, humble black-box pros-arch Dolphin Theatre on the University of WA campus; half an hour into the show, you could hear the hip-hop beat from the opening sequence of Barbershop Chronicles pounding next door through the walls. In fact humility is one of the hallmarks of Hand Stories, and of Yeung Fai himself, despite his prodigious skills. He learned these from his father, and is the last in a direct line of father-son puppeteers. The show uses puppetry and other media to tell the story of his father (moving archival footage of whom is projected onto a black vertical rectangular flat at the rear of the stage), who was ‘re-educated’ during the Cultural Revolution, forced to take up other forms of manual labour, and eventually died, broken in body and spirit. Yeung Fai himself was imprisoned, and later fled to Bolivia, where he lived a hand-to-mouth existence living and working on the streets before being discovered by a French producer who encouraged and supported him to start a new life and career in Paris.
The show also uses contemporary glove-puppets (with large white faces resembling death-masks) to represent Yeung Fai himself, his father, his mother and brother (who fled to the United States); in fact the most touching moment in the show for me was that of the two brothers parting, the only visible difference between them being their hairstyles, and the miniature US flag one of them held in his little hand. There’s also a larger, more sinister puppet-dragon representing the Chinese government/Communist Party as well as Yeung Fai’s inner demons; a puppet-angel with a somewhat grating predilection for Queen songs who appears as a saviour when Yeung Fai is living in exile (and whom I learned later represents his French producer); and more traditional glove-puppets are used throughout the show to demonstrate the art of glove-puppet theatre (these demonstrations seemed a little redundant, and the pace dragged during them).
By far the most interesting element in the show for me was the relationship between Yeung Fai (who spoke only in Chinese) and a second performer (Yoann Pencolé), who translated some of his words into English, and shared in the manipulation of the puppets. I wanted to know more about this relationship, the significance of which was only alluded to in the final scene, when Yeung Fai passed on a ritual flame in a small bowl to Pencolé, who finished the show with his hand in a spotlight, practising the same finger-and-thumb stretching exercises that his master had demonstrated at the start, while the latter quietly exited the stage.
As with Barbershop Chronicles, this was a story about filiation and brotherhood, and about the destruction and creation of families – genetic and artistic. Yeung Fai and Pencolé are primarily puppeteers rather than actors, and I felt that the show wanted the guiding hand of a director, and perhaps even a writer, to fully realise its potential. Nonetheless, it was another link in the conversation about how to deal with the past, which for me is a major through-line of this Festival.
New York composer Ted Hearne’s 2007 oratorio Katrina Ballads is a heartfelt, rage-filled and at times blistering response to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 – and more specifically to the indifference, negligence and underlying racism that contributed to the scale of the catastrophe and its aftermath. Hearing it performed in the Inner Courtyard at Fremantle Arts Centre last Thursday night, I felt the work had renewed and poignant resonance in the context of the Festival’s Museum of Water, the advancing urgency of climate change, the increasing polarisation of wealth and poverty, and the resurgence of racism in Trump’s America.
Scored for four principal vocalists – soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone (with the additional tenor of Hearne himself, who also conducted) – accompanied by a classical chamber ensemble (augmented by electric and bass guitar), the work follows the more or less prototypical format of a baroque or classical oratorio or cantata (from the religious and secular masterpieces of Bach, Handel or Haydn to more obviously socio-political twentieth-century protest-works like Schönberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw or Tippett’s A Child of Our Time). The score (as with Tippett – and indeed Bach) borrows from popular and folk music as well as more self-consciously ‘art music’ traditions; in fact Hearne (like Tippett, but for more obvious reasons) weaves African-American music into the score – in this case, not spirituals (as in A Child of our Time) but jazz, skat and gospel. More provocatively, the verbatim libretto is derived from broadcast-media and other ‘found’ texts from the week following the hurricane; and the performance is visually accompanied by filmmaker Bill Morrison’s montage of contemporary news clips, satellite images and other found footage (this was projected onto a screen behind the musicians, and splashed across the buildings and trees at the back of the courtyard to impressive effect).
Katrina Ballads is an angry work. The concept is brilliant, but it’s the music that carries the day. Highlights for me were Hearne’s own spit-flecked sarcastic solo-tenor skat rendition of George Bush’s fatuous words to Michael Brown (head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and responsible for the botched clean-up operation after the hurricane), ‘Brownie you’re doin’ a heck of a job!’; and African-American tenor Isaiah Robinson’s spine-tingling melismatic Gospel version of Kanye West’s on-camera off-script fundraising speech about racial injustice (with a nonplussed Michael Myers standing beside him), concluding with the knockout punch-line: ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people!’
Sometimes it’s important not to forget the past, and to maintain your rage.
Farewell to Paper is also about dealing with loss, but it’s a less political work than Katrina Ballads, and less personal than Hand Stories, although Russian writer-director-performer Evgeny Grishkovets illustrates his lecture-performance with plenty of anecdotes about himself, his family and friends. It’s also less narrative-based than the other works, but rather takes the form of a reflective, even meditative essay, in the great European tradition of Montaigne or Descartes; and its mood is gentle, elegiac, even ironic, rather than traumatized, angry, or even directly critical of the social, historical, technological and above all impersonal forces and processes it describes.
Grishkovets advances into the future backwards, as it were, with his gaze fixed on the wreckage of the past, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. He treads lightly, with a soft gaze, and a smile on his lips, withholding judgement on whether what’s occurring is catastrophe or progress, tragedy or comedy, or perhaps both. The irony is that he can’t see where he’s going; none of us can; indeed his delivery is so casual and the writing so digressive (Grishkovets has a performance background in improvisation) that at times he seems to be feeling his way in the darkness and almost making it up as he goes along. This invisibility is of course the very essence of the future; but perhaps it’s a peculiarity of our age (as speculative fiction writer James Bradley argued on Radio National just the other night) that we’ve stopped visualising or even being able to imagine the future at all; perhaps this is because we feel as if history has come to an end, that ‘the future is now’, and that consequently we’re living in an eternal present, which is itself now unknowable, so that we’re all feeling our way in a darkness without end.
Farewell to Paper is a lecture-performance on the disappearance of paper, handwriting, typewriters, letters, postcards, telegrams, books, and in general what might be called ‘the archive’: all those intentional and accidental records, relics and traces of human activity, written or otherwise, that might be said to constitute the ‘matter’ of memory. In other words, it’s about the advent of digital technology, the information age, and the dematerialisation of thought and existence, as more and more of reality becomes ‘virtual’. As Marx memorably wrote of capitalism, but in words prophetic of the third industrial revolution he didn’t foresee: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’
Like an ark in the deluge, the stage is crammed with material things: two chairs, a coffee table, a desk cluttered with papers, boxes and other miscellaneous stuff, and four doorways set in a false wall upstage, which open periodically to reveal an ever-changing array of fake vistas and objects, as surprising as those behind the doors in Bluebeard’s Castle: a forest of birch trees (which once provided bark for writing on in medieval Russia); a giant post-box; a fanciful network of pipes through which mail is imagined to travel to its destination. There are also occasional sound-effects and lighting changes, which more than anything else remind us that we’re in an artificially constructed theatrical world – a kind of vast aide-memoire or mnemonic space which, to borrow a phrase from Frances Yates, we might call kind of ‘memory palace’.
Grishkovets’s writing, performance and staging are all charming, delightful, whimsical, intelligent, witty and even poignant at times, but for me the most theatrical and indeed memorable thing about the production was the presence of a second figure onstage: translator and interpreter Kyle Wilson, who was graciously introduced to us by Grishkovets at the start of the show, and who translated every word he spoke (and he spoke entirely in Russian) from then on. Of course surtitles would be inappropriate in a show about the disappearance of physical and tactile (as opposed to merely visual) communication; but I soon became fascinated by Wilson’s modest, gentle, softly spoken persona, his focus on his task, and the evolving stage relationship between the two men. This was opening night, and as I later discovered, the first time they’d worked together onstage; Grishkovets had apparently never performed the work in an English-speaking country before. Wilson had of course seen the script and written his own translation; but there was an element of free-play, extemporization, listening and exchange between them that I found enchanting and intrinsically theatrical.
As Grishkovets duly warned and occasionally reminded us, the performance went for two hours, and my attention wandered at times from what he was saying, which in essence was a kind of extended personal reflection on the back page of The Guardian, and in the end his insouciance made me wonder why I should care. However my attention was continually engaged by his translator-interpreter, and the interplay between them. As with Compagnie XY, the double-act of Yeung Fai and Pencolé, the cast of Barbershop Chronicles and perhaps the people of New Orleans, it was all about working together, and the simple act of helping or even listening each other. Hand-in-hand we go on, advancing into the darkness.
Later that night, on our way home, my companion and I got into an argument about politics. It was an argument we’d had before, but this time we both dug in more deeply, and for a while it seemed as if we couldn’t make any headway. I noticed myself becoming intransigent, and thought of the acrobats brawling at the start of Il n’est pas encore minuit. Then we began to concede to each other, and ended up agreeing, at least, that perhaps both of us were right, that perhaps we could build on that, progress could still be made, and there was more than one possible future. It was not yet midnight, after all.
On Saturday night I saw the Michael Clark Company dance To A Simple Rock’N’Roll…Song. I’ve never seen Clark’s work before, and was expecting something more flamboyant, perhaps because of his bad-boy reputation, but was pleasantly surprised by the hard-edged rigour and minimalism of his latest show.
Act I: Satie Studs/Ogives Composite was a homage to Clark’s choreographic precursors and mentors, Fredrick Ashton, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, all of whom have created works to Satie’s music. It was a cool, hard, clean, austere, surprisingly restrained amuse-bouche. The dancers wore black and white bodysuits that stood out sharply against the super-saturated colours of the cyclorama behind them, lit by regular Cunningham collaborator Charles Atlas. Even the music wasn’t one of the composer’s more familiar or sentimental pieces, but a more astringent selection, ferociously played and recorded.
Act II: Land was a more energized piece, danced to a Patti Smith track from Horses. The movement was still tightly controlled, but more driven, suiting the relentless beat of the music and Smith’s vocal urgency. The dancers now wore silver bodysuits, and the backdrop now displayed a video by Atlas, which consisted of numbers tumbling frantically in dizzying formations.
Act III: my mother, my and CLOWNS! was the most substantial piece of the night, set to a series of David Bowie tracks stretching back across his career, beginning with his valedictory Blackstar and then segueing into ‘Future Legend’ and ‘The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family’ from Diamond Dogs, before ending with the sinuous, slightly insidious title track from Aladdin Sane. Here the choreography and dancers (their bodysuits now in shades of orange, apart from one mysterious deathly figure veiled and robed entirely in black) really began to take off. Moving like otherworldly androgynous insects, they began to resemble Bowie himself, and the selection of tracks emphasised the darker, more forbidding aspects of his music and persona.
I felt as if Clark’s musical, choreographic and staging choices reflected an artist in the latter period of their career, attempting to distil or crystallise the essence of their style in the face of mortality – and perhaps also in the face of a world that had grown darker and colder. Once again I found myself thinking about the past, and the future: Patti Smith, and Bowie, and the 70s when they were in their heyday, and everything still seemed possible; and the cool, inhuman, sci-fi vision of the future that Bowie embodied, even back then. There was something thrilling about revisiting those memories, but there was no turning back.
Next week Humph reviews the visual arts program of the Festival and his own participation in the next round of performance works.