I caught “Fourplays: ABCD” by Theatreworks this evening. It was directed by Vertical Submarine, a visual arts collective. Gonna write this in point form as a tribute to form breaking.
1. Preamble: If you open the programme notes with something akin to “we don’t actually like theatre,” then I’m not inclined to trust your decision to use theatre as a medium. But that was just a rant.
2. The piece was essentially 4 great short stories by Arlt, Borges, Cortaza and Duras planted over live action. The strategy was the interplay of extra-diegetic narration with diegetic speech. In other words: actors mostly moved around and spoke selectively as narration happened above them.
a) on a formal level, what was certainly at work was an attempt to blur the distinctions between prose and drama— speech and reading, writing and movement etc. Vertical Submarine clearly has an interest in breaking boundaries. Here, a choice quote from an interview they gave to promote the piece, in answer to the question ‘do visual artists make good playwrights?’:
“These are categories that arose out of the specialization and division of labour, of which many of us, including writers (another one of these categories) are not aware, which is very sad.”
i) if I were to be conservative, I would say that ‘division of labour’ is a stupid way to characterize the emergence of artistic forms over the history of human art-making. But that’s just a conservative thing to say, and might be faintly territorialist, old-fashioned and pre-theoretical. If I were to be progressive and take on board what is clearly a kind of post-structuralist way of thinking of things, then, yes, in many ways Art is the Great Work whose constitution is divided, probably arbitrarily, amongst different forms. The Work is the great reservoir from which there are many outlets that admit it into the world; all artists are at some point only conduits of Text etc etc and should thus think of their work as completely porous, interchangeable and their roles not as productive geniuses, but as transcribers. Or taps.
ii) Thesis: the problem with Vertical Submarine is that it hasn’t in fact been very consistent, in praxis, with its genre-breaking philosophy.
3. One of the key ideas of the kind of boundariless/boundary-breaking art-making like Fourplays: ABCD is that the recipient of the work of art is complicit in/responsible for the production of the work, often more so than the actual artists, who are in any case usually taken to be incidental. It’s an idea taken from Barthes-type literary criticism, viz. the Text is produced by the meeting of Reader and Work, or: interpretation is the text. It’s also a strong idea in theatre, i.e. that the audience is the final collaborator. Right out of this critical tradition, V.S., in the same interview from before, say, in response to a question about how the three who make up V.S. split the work between them:
“The work is not only divided between the three of us but between the whole production team and TheatreWorks, and even the audience who made serious effort to watch the play.”
[it’s probably not immediately clear how deliberately annoying these people are from the quotations I’ve chosen so far, and so the full interview bears some reading if you want to understand part of why I’m writing this piece]
i) It follows that the Work that’s presented should either a) make some room for the Reader or b) remain unapologetically expressionist and obscure, to some extent unreadable, such that the act of readerly inscription, production, whatever etc becomes the point.
[Strategy A is still largely manipulative and not purely ‘boundary breaking’, because a work that compensates/accounts for the reader is in effect creating its own reader (a more high-minded version of, say, pink-coloured women’s magazines producing their own ideological reader… at some level, no work can truly avoid this, since it always relies on some kind of language, which is itself constitutive of the reading subject but whatever).]
ii) I’ve seen some very good examples of strategy B in Singapore. There was “Dream Country,” conceptualized by Marion de Cruz and executed by a collective of directors and performance artists. To my mind, what “Dream Country” invested in was a game of signs and associations: the basic visual motifs were urns, water, women, earth and rough textile. Then, there was the dynamic language of movement, expression and (minimally) sound. Finally, there was a vague dramatic arc which I can’t remember. The kind of work that’s done here is a collaboration between audience and work: an entire spectrum of narratives, ideas, feelings etc, probably limitless in number based on whatever intellectual or visceral reactions and associations the piece’s languages provoked. This was good. Moving and thrilling at moments but often frustrating. It was nonetheless compelling because it challenged the audience to be attentive and to participate, and at some points the work was sublimely beautiful in the primal simplicity of flesh on soil, flesh on material. The work itself, even without one having to map over a complex readerly narrative, was often riveting for that reason.
iii) Basically what I’m saying is that a V.S-type theory of art should read something like this: the work is what it is, we don’t apologise for it, we’re not trying to make you understand it, it defies definition, it comes from a place of deep thought and meditation, it needn’t be beautiful, but there is truth in it, it may not be fully readable, but it will provoke you, it will challenge you to do part of the work, to be part of the work.
4. The problem with FPABCD is that it didn’t go far enough to be valuably and meaningfully boundary-breaking. In fact, it wasn’t boundary-breaking at all. In further fact, it broke the number one rule (I use the term casually) of funky avant-garde post-structuralist type art which is that FPABCD often told instead of showed.
i) I realise “show don’t tell” is a kind of playwriterly mantra, since the act of dramatic storytelling relies on live, real-time evocation rather than narratorial perspective, i.e. in drama, nobody really tells you what’s going on, and if you can hear the heavy voice of a narrator, then the playwright’s stepped in too much. I don’t necessarily mean “show don’t tell” in this micro-sense.
I mean “show don’t tell” on a formal level, where ideally the work is left there unexplained, operating on its own internal logic, and there’s nothing so vulgar as deliberate indication, explanation or hand-holding (i.e. telling) to orient the reader/watcher within any kind of fixed interpretive frame-work. If the critical canon surrounding Shakespeare, pointing to the deep ambiguity of all those plays, says anything, it is that this “show don’t tell” thing isn’t even necessarily restricted to postmodern boundary-breaking theatre. But it becomes increasingly important to any work that claims to be boundary-breaking, because the conventional rules of interpretation, i.e. ‘this form says that you interpret so-and-so as this’ (e.g. the reliable romantic comedy schtick where the dyspeptic, slightly awkward wing-people of the romantic leads hook up at the wedding) are = in a de facto state of suspension, thrown out of the window with the broken boundaries.
ii) By saying that FBABCD “told” more than it “showed,” I’m saying that it constantly, doggedly, even delightedly framed how it was to be read in some of the most comically obvious and self-aware ways that, in the absence of V.S.’s own philosophies about the production of art, I would have thought were ironic. The fact that it frames interpretation at all is doubly damning considering the other frame that was going on, i.e. the framing of 4 short stories. Doubly damning because it wasn’t just FBABCDwhich V.S. was teaching us to interpret, but the 4 short stories as well.
5. I’ll do a kind of detailed commentary of two of the pieces that most stuck out (to be fair, I left at intermission and missed the Arlt).
6. Playlet One, but let’s not call it a playlet, let’s call it something neutral like ‘Piece’. Piece 1 was based, actually in essence lifted wholesale, from Borges’s “The Shape of the Sword”. Borges’s piece is a story about the narrator, Borges, who has a drunken conversation with a mysterious Englishman in a tavern, which Englishman turns out to be Irish. Asked by Borges to describe the history of a horrific gash across his face, the Englishman/Irishman tells a harrowing story of his experiences in some Irish civil war or another. At a pretty hair-prickling moment, it turns out that the Irishman has been falsely narrating the story as the guy who gave him the scar, apparently in order to actually tell the story without being judged as the fucker who betrayed the man who gave him shelter etc etc.
i) Several things are interesting from a literary point of view: the twisted narration— essentially three levels of narration, two obvious, one hidden until the end. Narratorial self-distancing: the Irishman-masquerading-as-the-guy-he-screwed-over constantly debases himself (in disguise). It’s a brilliant feat of postmodern narration with a nod in the direction of the gothic tradition. So a few things are at work in the story: levels of truth, distancing, judgment; a certain kind of Uncanniness as well which emerges at the end when the repressed, embedded voice of the villain rises and merges with the voice of the narrating subject.
ii) It’s a frighteningly rich text to mine in a literary-critical sense, a great deal to work with. Most of the story’s complexity has to do with the texture of embedded narration: the reader constantly moves from reality to reality, like descending the levels of Chris Nolan’s Inception. This is something that happens seamlessly and for the most part unconsciously in prose form as we’re tossed from one level of reality to another: the tavern, then Ireland, then back to the tavern etc. It also carries across fairly successfully to live narration. In prose, the horrific, Uncanny aspect of the ending only happens because of the persuasive, conversational nature of first person narrative— the beauty of the Borges story is that it twists a knife deep into the eye of the reader and subverts readerly expectations of narration. It’s the classic case of an unreliable narrator, except it comes as a big shocker at the end. The frames collapse, the text is briefly chaotic, and then it all resolves in an ugly, tainted finale.
7. The problem with V.S.’s staging of this story was that it assumed the prose form needed tinkering with. I’m not being conservative when I say this: in staging the story the way they did, I’m suggesting V.S. missed the postmodern complexity of the story. The staging was painfully literal: two actors, one the outermost frame narrator, the other the Englishman, sitting in a tavern. The Englishman character basically reads out his narration as Borges writes it. Struggling against the naturally immersive quality of prose narration, V.S. used lights and sound to create a separate space on the stage, a space into which the Englishman occasionally steps so that V.S. can evoke prose’s transportive storytelling quality.
8. The V.S. staging of the Borges story contradicts V.S.’s boundary-breaking philosophy in two ways.
i) There’s no boundary-breaking work being done in a staging that essentially tries to re-create the reading experience in a live medium. That’s basically saying that instead of teasing the margins between storytelling through prose and live performance, V.S. tried to re-create one in the other, i.e. no boundary is broken— ideally, watching the V.S. staging is like actually reading the story (in one’s head). Which would be cool, if the V.S. staging actually came close to the quality of prose narration. For the most part, what V.S. offered us in the staging of the Borges was a pale imitation of the reading experience. e.g. where prose narration does its immersive/transportive work imaginatively, the V.S. staging utilised corny Hollywood-style SFX and patently racist Irish music in a way that was hand-holding and directional. In fact, what V.S. does is worse than a pale imitation of the reading experience, it is a circumcision of that experience by locking down in actual tangible, visible and audible detail (through costume, music and props) what would otherwise be left to the readerly/spectatorly imagination. Clearly, very little thought was put into this aspect of the direction. Consider how contemporary theatre and performance studies offer V.S. the tools to achieve what would have been a more successful boundary-breaking staging. Just off the top of my head: a single actor, flitting in and out of realities with a shift in timbre or a gesture or a shift in the lights, could have magically achieved with barely any obvious directorial intrusion the kind of fluid narratorial performance that is inherent in the prose form. It’s not even a particularly cutting edge idea: Schubert did it to chilling effect in Erlkonig with the solo singer straddling three voices.
ii) which leads to the 2nd way in which V.S’s staging of the Borges story failed on V.S.’s own terms. The literal, actualised specificity of the staging misses the protean quality of framed narration, and the direction makes up for it by being overly heavy-handed. The main cause of this is that the two characters are constantly on stage, physically fixed in the context of the outermost frame narrative (i.e. the tavern). The V.S. staging never successfully transports the Englishman out of the scene, he’s always literally there, even if he’s thrashing about in Ireland in the throes of civil war, he’s doing so in a pantomimic way in the tavern, in the presence of a guy who doesn’t say very much to him. For this reason, the stacked texture of narration which is so essential to that final stab in the reader’s eye is completely lost— there’s only one, flat level, made even worse by V.S’s largely 2-dimensional and horizontal visual composition. The flatness is so bad that when the twist does come, V.S. resorts to all kinds of histrionics, from maudlin shaking-head-in-hands acting on the part of the frame narrator to, I kid you not, a jang-jang-jang crash of thunder. The subtlety of the Borges is completely lost. Where the horror in the Borges comes in suddenly hearing, out of nowhere, the sound of evil in the voice of the trusted narrator, in the V.S. staging, there’s instead a failed attempt to produce this in melodrama.
iii) In many ways, the original Borges, locked in its prose form, is a lot more boundary breaking than the V.S. staging. In Borges, horror is produced from a subversion of the pact readers make with narrators. This is subversive on a literary-historical level considering the received esteem for narrators that Western literature has handed down over the years. Also, considering Borges’s own ambivalent position, there’s a strong postcolonial element at work. This is a level that V.S. claims they wish to access, seeing as they refer in the programme and in that interview to the ambivalence felt by both Latin-American and Singaporean writers of writing in the language of colonizers… but the V.S. staging completely shoots itself in the foot here. What V.S. does is reduce the complexity of the Borges to a turgid, largely static and uninteresting situation where one guy talks a lot and another doesn’t, and where the guy who talks a lot later turns out to have been lying all the while, which kind of pisses off the guy who doesn’t talk. This clearly stems from V.S’s vague curatorial angle which claims that FBABCD examines the ‘impossibility of dialogue,’ which is such a crock of bullshit considering there wasn’t any attempt to retrofit the Borges into a dialogic structure at all. Nor was there any understanding that the key dialogue in Borges, which is a broken, flawed and corrupted dialogue, is that between the reader/listener of the narration and the narrator. This is to say that a narrated staging of the Borges with an interest in the “impossibility of dialogue” obviously needs to include the key listener, i.e. the audience, in the narration, through clear performance strategies like actual audience-directed monologue. V.S. doesn’t do this: we’re completely locked out of the conversation because V.S. is 100% fixated on the failure of communication between the two people on stage. They completely miss the point.
9. What I think is actually at work in FPABCD is a kind of showy cleverness, where V.S. is mostly interested in a) demonstrating that they’ve read and understood these stories b) want you to know this. This is most clear in their staging of Duras’s The Malady of Death. This story directly fits the second part of the curatorial angle to do with the “impossibility of human relationships”. A man hires a prostitute for a couple of days and wishes for the encounter to transcend sex and become love; she basically eludes him. It’s a terse and obscure meditation on the inscrutability of women to men.
i) Strangely, during the performance, it became crystalline clear to me that the story was really a complex metaphor for the act of reading or interpretation. I’m not kidding. The vacant, inscrutable text of the woman’s body and heart, her confounding refusal to easily give meaning, the orgasmic joy of finding “a few words” that resonate with the man’s own soul… the whole Sex/Text, Orgasm/Meaning thing is what Calvino does to a frustrating degree in On a Winter’s Night A Traveller and, to me, it couldn’t have been clearer what was going on in Duras. It’s not that I’m especially clever or perceptive, here’s why: the V.S. staging practically threw this reading at us.
ii) The man of the story does nothing but walk around reading, get this, a book. The woman who appears in the scene with him constantly walks over to a pile of papers and writes feverishly on them, at one point even throwing them about feverishly as if no one saw that coming. There’s also a voice-over narration which cross-fades in and out with spoken lines from the actors, so the whole thing feels like it’s suspended in text— sound, image and meaning inter-penetrate in a way that’s evocative of that space in our heads where reading happens. Later, another woman arrives who turns out to be the prostitute in question and the first writer-lady at some point literally writes on the hooker. I made absolutely no sense of the thing except on this one interpretive level which was so blatantly announced in the direction that I couldn’t miss it.
iii) And I don’t think the point was to miss it. It was clearly a reading that had been discovered at some point and made to dominate: once there, it constantly called attention to itself as if to reflexively comment on the difficult, obscure nature of the piece (it’s highly intractable in its original form), and the audience’s own struggle to make meaning of it.
10. Obviously, the philosophical issue with this is that V.S. was massaging a reading. In spite of its exploration of the “impossibility of dialogue,” here, V.S. had very little trouble laying interpretive signposts all over the place to help us along. The fussy direction, the busy, overlapping sound scape… the direction called attention to itself, and for this reason the work was not left to be what it was: it actively directed us to meaning. There’s nothing so boundary-breaking about this. What V.S. is doing by laying such a thick level of interpretation over the Duras is claiming some kind of authorship-via-interpretation. This is, in and of itself, an okay idea considering the creative work that’s often involved in interpretation, translation and mistranslation. Directors do it all the time with revisionist or avant garde or updated stagings of classics that draw out some interesting level of meaning or another. Writers do it all the time with interpolative re-writings. But it is super not-okay for V.S. because the paradigm in which they work, which they defend with such snottiness, is apparently completely porous, collaborative and unstructured. But claiming authorship is claiming boundaries between reader and writer, it’s claiming ownership. “Look here: this is my interpretation. This is my version”.
11. Obviously, I left the theatre very angry. Not because of all the above, but because the show was so blatantly bad— it was very bad theatre. But I couldn’t criticise it on that level because the project they set out to do was to not-do theatre, on some level to expand our notions of what theatre is. They had some kind of mystic shield over them whose name is The Avant Garde. I was so pissed off by this, that I decided I needed to find a way to expose the sham-ness of their boundary-breaking philosophy, and I hope I have.
12. I’m frankly sick of this kind of theatre. It’s not like I didn’t understand it. It was bad: it was so unremittingly, smugly bad. It’d be a lot less bad if these people had approached the project with some kind of honesty—“I really like these stories, I want you to experience them”. But V.S. tried to float this under a far more fancy-sounding angle: “oh these stories are all about the impossibility of communication and human relationships. Yeah, we’re trying to destabilize notions of what is and is not possible in the theatre, we’re breaking down boundaries between forms.” I mean, if you want to do four Latin American writers and one French writer because their names give you ABCD, then just do it. But when the work contradicts the curatorial angle (which is vague at best), and when the work contradicts the art-maker’s supposed approach to art-making and audiences and the theatre in general, and when the creators wish to subvert a form without actually understanding it, then it’s all a little sad and quite upsetting.
13. There’s too much of this going around: stuff that is internally inconsistent, poorly conceived and executed. It’s also pretentious. The tacit claim of this kind of work is that it doesn’t give a fuck about what audiences think, but that’s really a kind of macho guise to hide behind. At least with V.S., it masks the absence of discipline, rigour and truth which make what seems like an old fashioned cocktail for art, but, hey it’s a pretty damned good one. I wish people would stop supporting this stuff without any discernment: it’s not good to claim that one is being ‘open minded’ about it—if it’s bad it’s bad. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: call it out for what it is.