Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The "Iconoclastic Theatre" Season in Cardiff

Heike Roms reviews this recent festival in Cardiff

"Images mean everything in the beginning / They're durable / Spacious./ But the dreams merge, become figure and disillusion..." In his poem "Images" from 1955, the late German playwright Heiner Muller alludes to the double nature of all imagery: it furnishes our personal fantasies and political visions ;with the symbols the;' need to take hold, but once established, imagery turns into ideology and dreams into nightmares. At the time he was writing these verses, the Marxist Muller had in mind the crumbling of the Communist ideal, "the final image", in the brutal realities of Stalinism. Today, even the seductive power of political imagery has long been commercialized to provide an image-greedy society with an ever new supply of visual temptations to cash in on our dreams.

The question of how artistic practice nay criticize, subvert or even demolish images as potential carriers of ideology and commercialism served as the starting point for an international season of theatre work, presented throughout October and November in Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and selected by Chapter theatre programmer Gordana Vanuk. Under the title "Iconoclastic Theatre" the festival featured four British premieres by companies from Italy, France/Croatia and the United States, works-in-progress workshops, post-show talks and an international symposium on the theme. The publicity for the season, in a heady rnixture of marketing boast and theoretical complexity spoke of a "new phenomenon in world theatre" of "historical importance within contemporary theater throughout the '90s" and drew on French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari for its conceptual justification. Yet in spite of this attempt to define a new artistic movement, the theatre work itself employed such a wide spectrum of forms and styles- funny and disturbing, sensual and cerebral, entertaining and painful - that it appeared difficult to group them under the label of "iconoclastic theatre".

Indeed, the history of theatre is already filled with "iconoclasts" - directors, designers and performers who have attempted to break away from the illusionary theatre convention that has dominated the European stage since the Renaissance. Within this tradition what we see on the stage is composed like a picture, with a clear frame formed by the proscenium arch, and constructed in such a way that it offers a single, unified point of view for the audience. Twentieth century theatre has tried time and again to abolish this equation of theatrical scene and pictorial image by dismantling the separation between auditorium and stage, or by taking the theatre out of its traditional buildings altogether. Others have taken the opposite route and made manifest the mechanisms of illusion by revealing how images are constructed on stage. Even the the sumptuous designer theatre of past two decades often creates a dense overlay of imagery in order to subvert the static nature of the traditional stage picture.

The Chapter season featured a similar mix of iconoclasts, iconographers and iconolaters. The Societas Raffaello Sanzio from Italy placed their variation on Hamlet, Amleto - or The Vehement Superficiality of the Death of a Molllusc within the conventional spatial division of stage and auditorium. Their dark and painful vision of the play maintains a close link with the original in a multitude of references, citations and allusions. But the Shakespearean text itself is reduced to an occasional word or sound, and the plot is replaced by a series of actions (shooting, falling, scribbling, defecating), carried out by a single performer with autistic self-absorption. This actor plays Horatio playing Hamlet, fulfilling his dying friend's wish to "tell my story", a story of "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts" . By stripping the play of story and history; dialogue and relationships, the company; elevates Shakespeare's Elizabethan drama to the realm of the mythical. Far from destroying the theatrical image the production instead proposes its transformation into an eternal symbol; the scene we witness is conceptualized as both a Freudian allegory for the womb of the mother and a representation of the ur-scene of all theatre

Goat Island, a performance group from Chicago, seats their audience On two sides of their playing area, from where we watch each other watching their latest production, The Sea and Poison, in which once again Hamlet features prominently. This time, the most famous of all poison dramas is part of a collage of textual fragments, taken from such eclectic sources as the classic B-movie, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man', accounts of Gulf V\War Syndrome and skin care advertisements, which combine into an almost encyclopedic record of environmental, mental and physical contaminations. Images, often surreal and comically literal (a woman spewing water like a fountain, a man with a bird on his head) are constructed and then set in motion by a sophisticated play with repetition, reframing and recontextualization, which changes its meaning constantly. The show ends in a carefully composed final tableau which recalls the formal construction of the piece. Goat Island thus makes manifest the processes of image making and its political use (rather than its destruction) in the name of a political theatre.

Branko Brezovec's production So, So takes us out of the theatre and into a suite in a Cardiff hotel. The performance is based on the oeuvre of French visual artist Sophie Calle, whose work explores the private life of strangers and turns it into art: in Hotel from 1986, she disguised herself as a chambermaid and secretly recorded the private belongings of the hotel guests with camera and tape recorder; in Venetienne from 1980 , she stalked a complete stranger for a fortnight and followed him to Venice in a romantic melodrama without emotional content. So, So combines her account of both project with the journal of her failed marriage. Brezovec and his French and Croatian actors attempt to emulate the voyeurism and the disturbing lack of affection that make Calle's work such a poignant expression of the isolation and emptiness of contemporary life. But in trying to display the mental states which preceded her artistic imagery the company create a portrait of the artist as a person which her own work deliberately evades

BAK-truppen from Norway did not need to change venues to take us out of the theatre. Their show, Good Good Very Good exists on the thin line that separates theatre from the performance that is our everyday Iife Their stage is a temporarily marked-off area, around which the audience sits casually, drinking, smoking and chatting. There is no real beginning, the lights remain the same, some members of the audience are still buying drinks at the specially installed bar, others are walking in and out of the room. One of the performers gets up and starts dancing, the others join her one by one, singing Norwegian drinking songs, reading texts about alcohol distillation and playing self-made instruments. Most of them can't sing, some can t dance, they all stumble over their English lines, but this work is not about being either good or bad, it is about testing the limits of theatricality. BAK-truppen's melancholic humour, their quirkiness and their partiality to strong spirits captivated the audience, like watching a band you secretly yearn to join, or a group of close friends you Iong to be a member of. Everything in their work seems spontaneous and improvised, but Good Good Very Good is far from random. There are references to the Sami ethnic minority in Norway, to China, to the use of alcohol in the colonialist project, and to the fantasy images we create of other cultures.

BAK-truppen stayed on for a few days and presented a 'work in-progress' at the season, Storm Kvakkested , as did French director Francois-Michel Pesenti, whose performance Movements created in a two-week intensive workshop in situ . The season was complemented a day-long symposium on "Iconoclastic Theatre", to which Gordana Vanuk had invited an international and interdisciplinary group of theorists. Some of them had followed Vnuk's work for a number of years, amongst them Knut Ove Arntzen, Professor at the University of Bergen in Norway', who described iconoclastic theatre as a theatre of margins, which is created outside of the economic and cultural centres of Europe and therefore is free to develop its own unique theatrical language. Ivica Buljan an essayist and director from Croatia identified some of the stylistic features of this language: a dramaturgy of non-hierarchical, non-linear arbitrariness, which deliberately encourages the audience to misunderstand it. Kathrin Tiedemann, a German journalist, linked the audience's perception to the kind of sensual experiences we derive from new technology'. And Bernard Andrieu, a philosopher from France, spoke about the prominent role the body plays in this theatre.

But the concept of iconoclasm was also met with caution and criticism. David Roden, philosopher at the University of Wales, referred to the ambivalent history of the term "iconoclasm" and warned of the danger of claiming that this theatre was beyond ideology. His observation that iconoclasts like Freud or Marx often revert to figurative speech in order to criticize image production was taken up by Ric Allsopp from Dartington College of the Arts, who pointed out that the companies featured at the season all seemed to reinforce, rather than dismantle, imagery in their exploration of theatricality.

But as Gordana Vanuk emphasized in her own contribution, her notion of an iconoclastic theatre is an attempt at defining a form of performance work that breaks with orthodox notions of drama, character, narration spatial and temporal unit;', and professionalism and therefore often finds itself defamed by traditional criticism. And although her notion may lack theoretical rigour she deserves deep respect for her intelligent engagement with and passionate commitment to a formally and philosophically challenging body of work.

author:Heike Roms

original source: Planet #132 December 1998/January 1999
01 December 1998


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