Review: A Large Attendance in the Antechamber ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review: A Large Attendance in the Antechamber

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, written, designed and performed by Mr Brian Lipson and Sir Francis Galton. Tower Theatre @ The CUB Malthouse until December 9. Bookings: 9685 5111

Twist my arm even slightly, and I’ll break down and admit it: Ms TN is an unabashed fan of Mr Brian Lipson. His theatrical imagination has amused, intrigued and astonished me so much over the past three years that I’ve awarded him the Theatre Notes Seal of Approval (Class #1), a very pretty trinket that has myriad applications (eg, as a bath plug, a fishtank accessory or a very fetching hat). But up to now (I’ll whisper it), I haven’t seen his best known work.

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber
premiered in 2000 and has had several seasons here, gathering enthusiastic praise along the way, as well as touring the festival circuit around the world. It even has its own Wikipedia page. Yet somehow, despite the glowing word of mouth, I missed it every time. This Malthouse season allows such delinquents as myself to catch up, and it seems I am not alone: the initial season booked out more than six months ago, and has been extended. Though it could be that it’s been booked out by those who want to see it again.

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber is a theatrical conceit concerning Sir Francis Galton, Victorian genius, founder of the controversial science of eugenics, discoverer of the anti-cyclone, inventor of the silent dogwhistle and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton had the highest IQ ever recorded, though it seems that for all his brilliance, he lacked a little in what these days is called “emotional intelligence”. But this is as far from worthy biography as it is possible to get. Part scientific lecture, part séance, part slapstick and part theatrical essay, it’s riveting and intelligent theatre.

Lipson has made a kind of theatrical machine with which he investigates the workings of Galton’s mind. The title comes from a suggestive note of Galton’s, quoted in the program, in which he describes how he thinks. “There seems to be a presence-chamber in my mind where full consciousness holds court, and where two or three ideas are at the same time in audience,” he says. “And an antechamber full of more or less allied ideas, which is situated just beyond the full ken of consciousness…. The successful progression of thought appears to depend, first, on a large attendance in the antechamber.”

It’s a striking description that suggests the possible anarchy of the subconscious (those attendees in the antechamber are often a ragged and disreputable lot). The connection to Berggasse 19, Lipson’s wonderful conceit about Freud's psychoanalysis, is immediately obvious. Both works have a fascination with the ellipses and eruptions of the subconscious, and both are intricately designed shows with an obsession with objects. The set for Antechamber seems to be have been made out of a packing case, the interior of which is a simulacrum of Galton’s study, complete with oil lamps, ceiling rose, hat stand, pictures and strange instruments that are produced, like rabbits out of a hat, out of the crammed interior.

Galton – complete with sideburns, Victorian dress and high forehead – is waiting for us as we arrive, seated in his absurd box. When he begins to speak, it is to apologise for what he considers an unsatisfactory presentation – he is being impersonated by an actor. And so begins the long series of conflicts between Sir Francis Galton – the speaker – and his rebellious subconscious, the actor Mr Lipson, who clearly is outraged by some of Galton's ideas.

It’s a conflict that escalates throughout the show with increasing absurdity: since it is Galton who, as it were, holds court, Lipson’s presence is reduced to subversive gestures – notes pinned to Galton’s back perhaps, or suspended from a helium balloon. At one point, he invents a ridiculous mechanism by which to introduce the actor without actually breaking the conceit by speaking his name; at another, he arrests himself; at another we are presented what is surely the most devastating parody of blackface I have seen, fatally undermining Galton's account of his adventures with the Hottentots in Africa.

The ostensible subject matter – a kind of whistle-stop tour of Galton’s achievements – is fascinating in its own right. Galton lectures on the necessity for selective breeding to achieve the potential of the human race, on ideal female beauty and on how to make a perfect cup of tea. He gives a slideshow in which he demonstrates the creation of a virtual woman – a woman created with the new photographic technology out of the features of different sisters. Using the same technique, he creates a generic image of the "Jewish type". And later, underlining the instablility of performance, he melds Lipson’s face and his own photographic image to create a third creature, the fiction being created before our eyes in the theatre.

It was, of course, Galton's idea of eugenics, or selective breeding, which was picked up and obscenely taken to its logical conclusion by the Nazis. In this show, it's clear how the idea stems out of the British class system (a certain class has always insisted that its sons and daughters, like its horses, exhibit "good breeding"). Our - and Lipson's - awareness of this darker subtext gives a sharp and discomforting edge to Galton's eccentricities. Galton was of his time: racist, sexist, a firm believer in the Victorian virtues of categorisation, the imperial virtues of discovery and the superior qualities of the British male.

For all its slapstick subversion, Lipson's show evades mere caricature. Its playfulness, a series of mirrors within mirrors within mirrors, is deeply serious: it asks us to be conscious of the artifice of theatre, and becomes ultimately a metaphor for the performances and masks of the self. Beneath Lipson's portrayal is a constant and uneasy subtext of madness, an unexpressed pain that occasionally breaks the surface in some throwaway image of Galton's (his description of sanity, for instance, as a tabletop surface with no safety rails).

In its final few moments the entire theatrical conceit is dismantled before our eyes, and leaves us unsure whether we are looking at Sir Francis Galton or Mr Brian Lipson. Or perhaps we are given a glimpse of someone else, a man denuded of all titles and labels and masks, a strangely anonymous human being who is simply exhausted at the end of a demanding performance and, trapped in the gaze of his audience, is unsure how to finish it.

It's one of those moments when the artifice of theatre becomes a means of revelation; although a very different kind of theatrical epiphany, it's not so far from Lear's vision in the midst of storm, in which man, stripped of his hubristic self-importance as the centre of the universe, is revealed to be only "a poor, bare, fork'd animal". It's the kind of risk that can only be ventured by an actor as accomplished as Mr Lipson. It might require all his skills to get there, but this kind of exposure is not about the art or the craft of acting, but about the sort of courage that is prepared to destroy both.

Picture: Brian Lipson in A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti


Anonymous said...

How long is this show? An interested venue manager...

Alison Croggon said...

If I recall rightly, it's about an hour - 90 minutes. However, my understanding is that this was its last showing, after many international tours and its third revival in Melbourne. Though you never know.