Jet of Blood, adapted from Antonin Artaud, directed by Olivia Allen. Designed by Adam Gardnir, lighting by Luke Hails, sound by Hayley Forward. With Simon Stone, Amelia Best, Lara Tumak, Austin Castiglione, Katherine Tonkin, Julian Crotti, Roderick Cairns and Grant Cartwright. Ignite @ Theatreworks, until October 15.
Letter to Jacques Riviere, June 5 1923. Antonin Artaud
To be fair, not even Artaud could realise Artaud; his own productions in Paris in the 1920s were dismal failures. He is, however, the most influential failure in theatrical history: his mark on 20th century theatre is indelible and profound, and is only rivalled by Brecht. The ideas articulated in Artaud's writings inform the work of groundbreaking directors as diverse as Roger Blin, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, Joseph Chaikin, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski and, more locally, Barrie Kosky. Edward Bond, Howard Barker and Sarah Kane are unimaginable without him.
But Artaud straight is a phenomenon that is, ultimately, unassimilable. The first and last thing you notice about his writing is its anguish: all his life, Artaud delineated a landscape of pain, in which the agony of the body is indistinguishable from the agony of the mind. This, he says again and again in his acute self-analysis, is a result of his mental illness. From his adolescence, Artaud was periodically incarcerated with a condition that looks very like schizophrenia.
What makes Artaud different from most mentally ill people is that, in what is almost a contradiction in terms, he was coldly conscious of his madness, and was capable of describing it with an almost savagely clinical intelligence. He never romanticised his sickness: he experienced it as horror and obliteration, and his experiments in theatre and mysticism were in part driven by a desire for transformation, for a resolution of the polarities that tormented him. His entire desire was to transform dualities - art and life, spirit and flesh, rationality and irrationality - into a unified consciousness; and the means he proposed was violence. The "cruelty" he demanded from theatre had an austerely moral purpose.
The second thing you notice about Artaud's work that's it's revolutionary. However, Artaud was completely hostile to any idea of social revolution, breaking in disgust from the Surrealists when they briefly embraced Communism. His revolution was solely cultural: a stance that, as Susan Sontag points out in her marvellous essay Artaud, is inherently conservative. Like many modernists, Artaud was only interested in individual transformation: for him, social revolution was worse than meaningless.
Artaud envisioned a theatre was, at its core, religious: what he sought was an experience which, like the "chemical marriage" of the Alchemists, would resolve his warring dualities into a coherent whole. Sontag is correct when she points to the extremity of his "moral rigour", commenting that Oliver Cromwell and Girolamo Savanarola might well have approved the theatre he proposed.
Certainly, Artaud shares with figures like Osama bin Laden or Pol Pot a singular and apocalyptic moral vision that seeks purification through destruction and violence. It is not hard to imagine Artaud following Stockhausen, who in a widely reviled remark shortly after the 9/11 attacks, called the destruction of the Twin Towers "the greatest work of art there has ever been!" "I am not a madman," Artaud said, late in his life. "I am a fanatic." Like all Artaud's self-diagnoses, this statement has the cold coruscation of truth.
What, then, to make of competing claims for an "authentic" experience of Artaud? Outside a lunatic asylum, a war zone or a concentration camp, I am not sure whether there can be such a thing. It is possible to think of the theatrics of torture in Abu Ghraib - the posing for photographs, the obliterating of the human body, the totalising word, the sexual loathing - as the ultimate Artaudian theatre. Like many poets, Artaud was lamentably literal.
I can't think of anyone who has taken Artaud's ideas in toto and realised them in the theatre; and in my heart, I can't imagine why anyone would want to. He is a catalyst and a provocation, rather than a model. Grotowski's actor-centred quest for sacred truth or Brook's aesthetic sensuousness are far too humane to be genuinely Artaudian. Making Artaud is, in many ways, also an unmaking of Artaud.
Which leads me, finally, to Ignite's production of Jet of Blood. Ignite is a company of young theatre artists drawn mainly from WAAPA and the VCA, and their ambition in choosing to work on this inscrutable and unperformable text is admirable. Jet of Blood, written in 1925, contains some of the most blackly comic, extreme and misogynist stage directions ever written. They culminate in this nightmarish vision: "an enormous number of scorpions emerge from under the WET NURSE's skirts and begin to swarm in her vagina, which swells and splits, becomes vitreous, and flashes like the sun. The YOUNG MAN and the BAWD flee like victims of brain surgery."
It's fair to say that nothing like that happens on the Theatreworks stage. Ignite has made, I think, a brave and sometimes successful attempt at surrealist theatre; but what it lacks is Artaud. It must be said, however, that in freely adapting the text, using it as an occasion for their own imaginative explorations, director Olivia Allen and her cast have taken an Artaudian approach - as Artaud said himself, "Subservience to the author, dependence on the text, what a dismal tradition!"
Allen has framed the performance with Death (Grant Cartwright) in whiteface and top hat, who evilly welcomes the audience into the theatre, promising - or threatening - a life-changing experience, and throws us out afterwards, forbidding applause, as the performers light up post-coital cigarettes. He introduces the first scene of the play, a Young Man (Simon Stone) and Young Woman (Amelia Best), sitting up in twin beds, proclaiming their love for each other and their satisfaction with the state of the world.
The world is torn apart almost at once: the Knight (Austin Castiglione), dressed in a breastplate, nappy and cheese-grater, and the Nurse (Lara Tumak) erupt screaming from the couple's single beds like bad conscience. The Young Man, the only character costumed in ordinary clothes, is spilt into a world of bewildering confusions, populated by a Priest with a Swiss accent (Roderick Cairns), his canine Sexton (Julian Crotti) and a Whore (Katherine Tonkin).
Allen has taken her lead from the Surrealists: a series of oneiric scenes sweep through the theatre to the accompaniment of a bruising soundtrack by Hayley Forward. The tableaux she creates are often comic as well as dreamlike: the Knight tosses dead birds out of a paper bag, in a parody of feeding pigeons; the nurse attempts to breastfeed a baby, which spills to the ground as a bag of grain; the Priest eats baked beans while his Sexton snuffles at his feet like a dog.
Allen and designer Adam Gardnir use the perspectives and cavernous spaces of the Theatreworks stage to advantage here, creating blacklight theatre that is lushly and precisely lit by Luke Hails. The strange characters emerge from darkness and vanish in a vortex of dream images. The performers are impressive, meeting the challenges of this production with polished physical skills and commitment.
However, there is a certain clumsiness in the mise en scene, a repetition of thought perhaps, that even in a show as short as this (50 minutes) begins to be felt as a numbing of surprise: actors too often arrive on stage in the same way between "scenes", for example. But more problematically than that, the show demonstrates limitations of imagination, rather than its liberation. Turning the lights up on the audience, for example, felt like an obvious gesture, whereas the same action in Stuck Pigs Squealing's Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, a show that scraped the raw nerves of the subconscious, was genuinely discomforting.
Perhaps the most telling symptom is the lack of disgust in this show. The other half of Artaud's exhortation against subservience to the author is: "The spirit of the text, not the letter!" Here there is none of the spiritual anguish or the passionate sexual loathing that winds through Jet of Blood. The parade of theatrical images, interesting or beautiful as they may be, are too often detonated by laughter, and they never add up to the exhilarated revulsion or shock that Death promises us at the beginning of the show.
One reason might be that the whole is enclosed in a narrative of dream. The Young Man is afflicted by these visions of a demented world while he is asleep; this leaves an exit for all of us, since all he has to do is to wake up. Artaud, on the other hand, claimed he was recording intolerable realities from which there was no escape. Ultimately this is a polite and untraumatising imagining of Artaud: no tormented naked flesh, no seminal fluids or shit, no spurts of blood from the wrist of God.
For all that, Jet of Blood is never boring and gives us glimpses of true theatrical flair. It certainly marks the debut of a promising new company, and I'll watch their evolution with interest.
Picture: (Right to left) Lara Tumak, Amelia Best, Roderick Cairns, Katherine Tonkin, Austin Castiglione and Grant Cartwright in Jet of Blood. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.