Review: The Show Must Go On ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review: The Show Must Go On

Melbourne Festival #5

The Show Must Go On by Jérôme Bel. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 18. Bookings: 1300 136 166

If you do nothing else at the Melbourne Festival, go and see Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On. I have no idea how to tell you why: I suspect that any attempt to recapture this event in words will run through my fingers, leaving behind a detritus of clichés and banalities. You have to be there. It’s about being there. So go.


Last year I took my then 11-year-old son to see Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself. One would think that a two-hour dialogue about dance on a bare stage would be unpromising 11-year-old material, but the boy came out radiant. And when he saw that Bel was included in this year’s program, he lit up and insisted that I take him. In Ben’s world, Jérôme Bel, ferociously avant garde French choreographer, is up there with Andy Griffiths. He’s been looking forward to seeing The Show Must Go On for weeks.

Last night I shepherded a now 12-year-old, who was quivering with anticipation and excitement, to the Arts Centre. It’s fair to say that expectations were high. And when we emerged 90 minutes later, infused with the inimitable Bel effect of joyousness and loving-kindness for all of humanity, we both agreed that our expectations had not only been met, but exceeded.

But how to speak about what Bel does? It's difficult, because when you describe it, it sounds like nothing at all. It's at once incredibly simple and profoundly sophisticated. He takes the ordinary and puts it on stage. He recovers the real feeling that is hidden in sentiment and cliché.

It could so easily be the worst sort of pretension, but it isn’t at all. It’s a kind of grace: this work touches with such lightness, but it’s deeply thoughtful, deeply serious. It’s wickedly provocative, witty, even ridiculous; and then you find yourself overwhelmed by sudden emotion, by a sudden piercing recognition of the vulnerability and beauty and mortality of the simplest human gesture.

Bel strips theatre of everything extraneous. He totally destroys the barriers between the audience and the stage. With an austerity that strikes me as being very French, he refuses any hint of manipulation. The work is offered for us to make of it what we will, and we are free to respond however we like. The liberties he takes are audacious, but the hilarity that ripples through the auditorium is warm, delighted, amused. I can safely say that I have never been among an audience which responded to a show with such freedom and pleasure and lack of self-consciousness.

It is, as Ben said as we left the theatre, so human.

It’s obviously not for everyone: two women walked out stiffly around half way through, having had enough. I suppose if you’re expecting spectacular dance, Bel – whose work stems from some deep reading of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle - will be offensively disappointing. No, what Bel does is somewhat rarer than that. He gives us ourselves.

Picture: The Show Must Go On. Photo: Musacchio/Lanniell

15 comments:

Chris Boyd said...

Jerome was very unhappy with our general levels of frivolity and our unwillingness to watch him with po-faced seriousness.

The rules are there for him to break. He has rather stiff expectations about boundaries. On our side of the footlights, we must watch and appreciate and not -- I repeat not -- participate. Cute hey?

Sweet review, BTW.

Alison Croggon said...

There was a lot of spontaneous participation last night. But also moments of total silence, total moved engagement. I've actually not seen anything like it, I hate audience participation usually, that solicitation usually feels false or manipulative. If I had time, I'd go again to see what happened next time...

Matthew said...

I, for one, started singing Imagine. But unless you're an extrovert, which I'm not, it's very hard to bring yourself to take part when the vast majority of people around you are trying to maintain some sort of audience-performer divide. Even when it's clearly been done away with, permanently.

I am so glad I let people talk me into getting a ticket (and what a plum seat I got too, at the last minute). It's one of the festival's highlights.

My face hurt from smiling so much. This is a good thing.

naive theatre goer said...

I'm obviously completely out of touch, I confused "Andy Griffiths" with "Andy Griffith". I was thinking that I might as well stay home and watch re-runs of "Matlock" instead of buy a ticket. But now that I've cleared up that embarrassing mix up,...

Chris Boyd said...

Out of touch? I'll show you out of touch!! I read that and thought, oh, okay. That's the dude who sings Moon River that Nelson Muntz has a man-crush on in The Simpsons.

You were only a letter off the pace, NTG. I was way off! And, now, apart from having mortified and alienated my buddy Ben, I have Andy Fricken Williams on my brain. Ick!

Anonymous said...

I thought what a wierd son La Crog must have to watch ancient B&W American sit-coms

Alison Croggon said...

Thank god for hyperlinks, eh? And there I was thinking that Andy Griffiths was a household name. Well, he's a household name in this household, anyway.

(Obscure Simpson quotations are pretty well in touch, Chris. I'm sure Mr Ben is very cool with that. As for my sons being weird, well, don't tell them I said so, but they probably are).

naive theatre goer said...

I enjoyed it very much. The crowd was in a jovial mood and there was some audience "participation" though it didn't get boisterous. Once people cottoned to the fact that the dancers were following the "instructions" from the songs, they would start to giggle and laugh out loud when a new song began, anticipating what might be in store.

Someone commented to me afterward that you would have to be humorless (or in a humorless mood) to not enjoy it. That might seem like an odd comment since it wasn't a "comedy" performance but she seemed right to me.

Anonymous said...

boring. predictable. like being stuck in a theatre restaurant.

Anonymous said...

I bid hello!
dear anonymous, I may only be 12, but I know when people just don't get it! You aren't meant to observe, you're meant to 'interact' as such.

your pal, Ben

Anonymous said...

You may get Jerome Bel Master Ben, but at least I can smoke and drink and get into R rated movies, so there!

Michael W said...

One more thing: the next day while I was flip-flopping about whether I felt satisfied with my night of dance, my partner asked if I could identify and describe every dancer in the show - and I could.
All 18. (So could she.)
I don't know what that says, exactly - but what other dance performance makes a footy team of dancers all instantly memorable - or at least recollectable?

Megan Bridge said...

Allison--is it your observation that The Show Must Go On stems from a deep reading of Debord's "Society" or do you have this info from some source? Just curious...from Megan in Philadelphia USA.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Megan - it comes from Bel himself. He spoke about his motivations in his previous show, Pichet Klunchun and Myself. He began as a dancer, reached a crisis, gave it up, and read philosophy for six years before he began to make his own dances.

xofro said...

Your review exactly summed up my response to the show, Ms TN. Except that I hadn't heard of Bel and was confounded by the beginning, starting with confusion, then affronted, then beguiled and charmed - moving through delight, to being moved (and shedding a tear at one point to my surprise), leaving the theatre with a smile on my face and my heart on my sleeve...