Things to do
Performance Review: A compelling theatre space in the abyss that is the human heart
From the start it’s obvious that something is seriously off. The stage is gone.
There is no stage in this black box theatre room, only seats, which means that I end up sitting bathed in spotlight and exposed to half the audience members who are also in uncomfortable still-life display mode.
It turns out there are clues in the paradoxical title: ‘The Director; or, Behind the Curtain of an Unravelling Theatre Company’. The absence of actors (as it seems to me) underscores a spooky lack of direction! We are trapped in a nonspace, a hole in the plot of our lives, where neither plot, time, objects or background exists.
Nothing happens. The lights don’t dim. I’m helplessly face-to-face with unfamiliar faces as awkward and nonplussed as I am.
Really, I’m face-to-face with myself. Am I the subject of the play? Is my character up for everyone’s – including my own – evaluation?
This is not the theatre of the absurd so much as the theatre of bad news and chilling reports from the interior. In other words, there is a direction after all – and it’s dark and fragmentary.
It emerges in a stranger-than-fiction string of contorted, painful, unbelievable – but also somehow authentic and probable – accounts of past events associated with the director Lee Elms’ previous work ‘The Pillowman’.
To quote the full title of this play, we have been invited to go “behind the curtain of an unravelling theatre company”. The key word is unravelling.
Nods to Nietzsche
Nietzsche, whom the director quoted twice in his interview with CPH POST in mid-April, said: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”.
Nietzsche added: “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”.
‘The Pillowman’, we learn, was motivated by the director’s clear conviction that because the world contains acts of horrible violence and evil we had better look those facts squarely in the eye in order to learn how to prevent more of the same.
As sin upon unspeakable sin are spoken into being, the play keeps repeating: “Can you imagine?” and “Can you believe that?”. In the end I am forced to ask myself, what does it say about me that I can, as it turns out, all too easily imagine all these grotesque and atrocious acts?
Am I – like ‘The Pillowman’ actors – getting too close to the abyss and dignifying the fall into it by calling it research? When does the monstrous transformation start? (One actor said: “Lee pushed me to places I didn’t know were inside me”.) And equally crucially, where does it end?
Yes, the play is controversial. It has startling and involuntary effects on people – that is what makes it controversial. The stage-audience boundary has – not accidentally – been suspended. There is a hint that a similar suspension characterises the boundary beyond which there be monsters – the line between good and evil.
It has been said that laughter – an involuntary effect – is the sound of comprehension. Something true has been comprehended, they say, when your body contorts in loud guffaws.
If this play shows anything it shows that the same may be said for the reverse response. The more I think about Elms’ work the more I believe that you haven’t really understood this play unless you were among those who involuntarily squirmed in horror, heckled the actors or otherwise signalled your sacred disgust with the monsters eternally lurking in the abyss that is the human heart.