Review: Persé ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Persé

Theatre is, perhaps more than anything, an act of translation. Acts are translated into words, words translated into actions and images. Watching any show means deciphering, consciously or not, a number of languages: the semiotics of space, lighting, choreography and gesture, the meanings of spatial relationship between performers and audience members, the inflection of a myriad of theatrical traditions through new technologies and techniques and ideas.

In the absence of a general theatrical literacy, this can lead to problems: it's common to encounter people who can watch experimental movies without blinking, easily processing the sophisticated and complex language of film, but who are baffled by the most basic techniques of creating theatrical meaning. It's not because theatre is inherently more mysterious; it's because our culture is soaked in the language of film, but the language of theatre has nothing like the same cultural status. The best education, as with all art, is to go and see a lot of it: screen culture is so hard to avoid that we absorb its language through a process of osmosis, but the language of theatre has to be consciously learned.

The primary language of theatre is still popularly considered to be writing: mention theatre to the average punter, and he or she will think of plays. And often our more experimental artists want to give this perceived dominance a good shake, and to foreground the other theatrical languages. This can lead to fascinating results, among them some of the best work I've seen in this city. But it's a process fraught with peril, which as often can make the whole much less than the sum of its parts.

On the question of text in theatre, I'm more or less with the German writer Robert Musil, who wrote in 1926: "The actor's theatre, the director's theatre, the theatre of acoustic form and that of optical rhythm, the theatre of visualised stage space, and many others have been offered to us... They have taught much that is worthwhile, but about as one-sidedly as the assertion that one should throw a man who has a cold into the fire, which is also fundamentally based on a correct idea. The experience of our senses is conservative... what is to be understood through seeing and hearing cannot be too far removed from what is already known."

True radicality, Musil argues, can only occur in "immediate proximity to the word", because it is through the word that human beings mediate and quarrel with experience: it is through the word that we think, and it's through thinking that we abstract, rearrange and create work that is more than merely novel. Musil is not merely being logocentric here: he is too canny to suggest that meaning can only be communicated through written or spoken language. The clue is in that phrase "immediate proximity".

Which brings me at last to Iván Sikic's Persé, which is one of those experiments with classic texts that moves away from the text itself. Performed in the vaguely sinister environs of the disused Collingwood Underground Carpark, it's a work of theatre inspired by Jean Genet's 1949 play Deathwatch, a drama between three prisoners and a guard set in a claustrophobic cell. This production shows that Sikic is a directorial imagination to watch, but it also demonstrates that moving away from a text as complex and intelligent as Genet's can also be a way of moving away from its challenges.

Genet is one of the great moral imaginations of the 20th century. He embraced the negation of conventional moral values, searching instead for an authenticity of existence which united the sacred and profane, a blazing immediacy which went truly beyond good and evil, which resisted any vulgarity of motive, sometimes by entering the most extreme vulgarities. Genet found this possible transcendence in the abjection of criminality, and especially in the act of murder. But, as Deathwatch demonstrates, Genet had a hierarchy of criminality: the mere act of murder was not enough.

It's impossible to summarise the myriad and fascinating arguments about Genet's work here. Jean-Paul Sartre's giant and somewhat homophobic study of his work, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, examines the paradoxes and achievements of Genet's oeuvre, given that Genet was always the most unreliable of narrators. Sartre proclaims him as the acme of the self-defining existentialist man. George Bataille claims that Genet, for all his prodigious gifts, failed as a writer because he failed in his paradoxical quest for sovereignty, without which communication is impossible. According to Bataille, he fails out of an excess of calculation, a self-aggrandisement that is "eager for royal dignity, nobility and sovereignty in the traditional sense of the word" that compromises the "momentary grace" that is all we can actually know of sovereignty.

It strikes me that for all their profound meditating on Genet's work, both Sartre and Bataille fail to recognise the significance of Genet's attitude towards "misfortune". "You don't know the first thing about misfortune if you think you can choose it," says Green Eyes in Deathwatch. "I didn't want mine. It chose me....I tried everything to shake it off.... It was only when I saw that everything was irremediable that I quietened down.... It's only now that I'm really settling down to my misfortune and making it my heaven." In Genet's sub-lunar world, liberty and revolution - central to Sartre and Bataille, both mid-century French thinkers - simply don't exist; the abject human being is a man who has no choice.

The paradox of inverted morality, in which good is evil and evil is good, is not a means to freedom or revolution (nor in fact what Genet ultimately does, which is rather to rearrange the boundaries of the sacred). Rather than a rebellion against unjust reality, Genet's literary outraging of moral precepts is, paradoxically, a radical acceptance of injustice. And that is, to minds that perceive literature as a manly pursuit, an active force in the world, perhaps his greatest and most troubling moral transgression. Genet takes the privilege of literature, a privilege assumed by both Bataille and Sartre, and infects it with unprivilege. In doing so, he destroys its moral - and, not unincidentally, its gendered - assumptions. It's not surprising, considering this, that he spent the last decades of his life in political activism, although it might have surprised Sartre and Bataille.

If I have discussed Genet at some length, it is because this dimension of thought is what is missing from Sikic's production. Persé doesn't attempt a conventional production of Deathwatch; rather, in Sikic's words, "we scrapped the text and approached the story physically. I felt that in order to get a more visceral and less rational representation of the story, the actors needed to let their bodies guide their decisions. This way, they would not get caught up in the language, which can sometimes be a barrier to the true essence of what each character is going through, and what the story is trying to say".

One can respect the attempt, although I can't help wondering at what stage the text was removed, and what each participant thought the story was about. Removing the script has the effect that Musil warns against: what we witness is the conservatism of the body, its relaxation into what is already known. Thus the three criminals we are allegedly witnessing seem about as dangerous as damp flannels; there is nothing in these performances of the suppressed violence that exists in a prison environment. You don't believe for a moment that any one of them could have committed a murder, whether out of petty vanity, like Lefranc, or for diabolically sacred motivations, like Green Eyes. Genet's ritualistic fable is reduced to a simple story of competing sexual power and yet, for all its ambition to reveal the eroticism and viscerality that underpins Genet's play, it is curiously anerotic.

I suspect that sticking to Genet's text, rather than replacing it with largely banal dialogue, would have at least challenged the collective's imagination, and would have resulted in better work. But I don't want simply to condemn this production: spatially and visually, it had moments that were better than good. The set, lighting and sound design were superb, generating moments when you could glimpse the possibility of something that reached beyond the banal, exploiting the abandoned, echoing space of the car-park to create an abstract reality that was at times almost visionary. The best moments were when the actors weren't moving at all; they created tableaux that had something of the quality of the surreal industrial scenography in Tarkosvky's films, unsettling and epic theatrical landscapes.

For all this talent to mean something, it has to work in that "immediate proximity to the word", to wrestle with the challenges that writing such as Genet's issues rather than, as here, side-stepping them. I admire the ambition, even if in Persé it vaults over itself and ends in something like a pratfall. And I will watch Sikic's further work with deep interest.

Picture: from Persé. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Persé, inspired by Jean Genet's Deathwatch, directed by Iván Sikic. Assistant director Daisy Noyes, dramaturg Jess Murphy, set design by Michael Parry and Richard Pettifer, lighting design by Emma Valente, sound design and composition by Martin Kay and Nick Van Cuylenburg, costume design by Michael Parry. With Angus Keech, Richard Pettifer, Simon O. Chen and Sean Cairns. The Sikic Co, Collingwood Underground Carpark, Harmsworth St, Collingwood, bookings 0423 238674. Closes tomorrow night.


Maude Davey said...

It's interesting isn't it, the 'creative adaptation' idea... it seems to me the hardest work is the conceptual work that underpins any script, the bringing together of circumstance, environment and character in order that these words can be spoken - in order to reveal... whatever it is that needs to be said. There is a kind of laziness in taking the results of that hard conceptual work and throwing them away in order to riff on what it adds up to. Unless the riffing can intelligently enlarge upon the original work in order to reveal something new - which sometimes happens - I think it's like what rap artists were doing a few years ago, taking a great song, keeping the chorus (the hook) and rewriting the lyrics. So, Every Breath You Take becomes a saccharin love song - a risible reduction. You know, the dumb version. Not that I'm saying that's what this show becomes... I missed it, but will be looking out for his work in future on your recommendation.

Born Dancin' said...

I'm not so sure. I'm always wary of reviewing the work I didn't see over the one I did... although it's a trap I fall into too, of course. It's a bit like lamenting the arts culture we don't have rather than engaging with the one we do. Then again I didn't even know Perse was on so I'm clearly discussing a work
I didn't see here myself. How circular.

Alison Croggon said...

I've been pondering this one, BD. On the one hand, it's a just observation, and I hope I always do look at what is there, drawing on that erotics that Sontag speaks of; on the other, if a work engages with a writer like Genet (say) it is pulling into the frame of reference all the constellations of ideas that artist expresses or represents, and those are necessarily part of the picture. Artists always reference (and always in part destroy) the art that went before; I think every work of art is simultaneously an act of criticism. And criticism itself is partly (but I think crucially) an engagement with an artist's act of criticism.

Born Dancin' said...

Of course. And an audience member (and critic) always brings in their own constellation of ideas, experience, concerns, wants etc. It's a tangled process, innit? Taking a work 'on its own terms' - ie only critiquing what is there in front of you - is probably impossible from a philosophical perspective.

Alison Croggon said...

Yep. The poet Muriel Rukeyser has a beautiful model of art as exchange between all these different and fluid consciousnesses and realities... All my thinking about art is deeply inflected by that fact that I first started thinking about art critically through going to the theatre. Part of an poem/essay about all that is published in How2, if you're interested...excuse the suss lineation.