Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Day 3 - Wandering Hanger Festival

I am Lucky, by Leonid Kaganov
Former factory
Deep Theatre, Lugansk, (Ukraine)

The twin drivers of human progress during the 1800s – the Science of the Age of Enlightenment and Productivity of Industrialisation – broke down at about the same time. The endpoint of Science was the atomic bomb, that pinnacle of scientific achievement that brought in the option of wiping out entire cities with the push of a button. Efficiency and productivity were taken into unintended territory by Nazi Germany, when they were applied to ethnic cleansing and forced labour camps – transforming the unclear blob of humanity into an efficient mass, and cutting away the 'excess'.

Both of these events showed just how far the human being had departed from rationality and ethics in a quest for progress by which just about anything was justified. When they both collapsed suddenly, there was now this giant spiritual vacuum, a lack of direction for the human project.

Happily, we had a neat replacement, neo-capitalism, with its key objective of resource exploitation and growth coupled with an illusory endlessness, perpetuated by a mechanism of manipulative fabrications commonly referred to as consumerism, promising to fill that void with escapism, fantasy and sensation. These two drivers are our new gods, (combated, albeit, in retrospect, a bit hopelessly, and at times itself appropriated by its big brothers, by a broad movement called ‘humanism’, which took shape in arts and culture).

But, naturally, these two prongs have weaknesses. And what happens when the party’s over?

There are two ways artists can address this spiritual gap, a quickly looming train wreck. They appear, on the surface, to be very similar, and they often involve going back to basics.  Who needs consumerism anyway? We can have Butter-bread! Together! We can share it with each other! Quick, break it in half and give it to your neighbour! Just like we used to when we were kids! Isn’t this beautiful?

So what’s the difference?

Critical thought. I claim.

For if the human project is indeed mislead, and there are multiple versions of history that you can employ to suggest otherwise, (I just find them more propaganda than convincing), then it doesn’t do to just feed people more of the same manipulations that they are already being fed. What’s the difference between an artist appropriating an item of nostalgia, and Disney co. doing the same? Just that the artist is less powerful, surely. No, it must be to teach the audience to think critically, to give what you have for that cause, to implore them to exercise better judgement, to let them know that they are not alone, that you are ready to face the same things with them, that you will struggle with them. Not - my god - that everything is going to be ok.

And that, in essence, is where my review of I am Lucky ends, because that is the key question I have for it. Looking around the abandoned factory, seeing people dividing their bread, collectively creating a spider-web from a long piece of tape, holding a dart board while the actor throws a dart... I wasn’t convinced. After the debrief, even less so, as my respected colleague lamented wistfully that she loved that song, which had been song with whistful participation by some audience members, from her childhood about the people from outer space.

To be fair, I Am Lucky is far from a bag of expository tricks. There’s an entire sci-fi narrative I was not party to, an irreverent, eclectic requiem about the protagonist's time travel to find a cure for his grandfather's cancer (available in English here), to which these actions were added for stage. This would seem to have much to do with what I discussed above. But was the audience seduced by the charms of the actor? Were they shocked into submission to emotional response? Or were they able to reflect on the actions with distance, to reject with autonomy the communal action as inauthentic, to exclaim quietly to themselves “I remember the time when I shared my last dollar. Your piece of butter-bread is meaningless”. Which, lets face it, it is. When fiction competes with reality, the result is always bad for the fiction.

Again, my respected colleague is really my only guide here. “Why can’t you have an emotional response sometimes? That’s ok, isn’t it?"

Well, yes and no, sadly.

All of this is neatly summed up for me in the ending, where the actor invited an audience member (I believe it was an accident that it was one of the festival judges) to sit with him, cuddling, presumably watching the sunset. From my privileged high vantage point, I could see in to the distance an exact replication of the image - their real-world double - directly in the middle of their eyeline – a middle aged couple, sitting against the elephant statue and the golden leaves of the Lutsk park, gazing off into the distance, loving, hoping.

I looked back at the illusion before me, and I couldn’t stop the anger.

This review was assisted by Olha Velymchanytsia. Other reviews to follow.

Photo - Pavla Berezuka

"Celestial geometry" (shadow parable)
Studio Theatre "Danko", Kiev (Ukraine)

It’s often seemed weird to me that there aren’t more shadow plays. Shadowgraphy has a long tradition in various countries, Ukraine among them. It’s one of the position as one of the earliest forms of theatre. With the human imagination, you can do anything. It’s a beautiful playground.
What’s killed it? Other media, I guess, and yet there’s something eternal about it, something primal and infinite, and something marvellously accidental that we see repeated in some of the best stuff on Youtube.

Studio Theatre Danko take advantage of the form with this, one of three shows in the repertoire, and by far the most metaphysical. After a hilarious opening credit sequence where an audience mobile phone user is axed in the back (which seems to have its own luddite metaphor) and reminiscent of Seattle independent group WET’s frequently employed gunshots and “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” opening, we are presented with a kind of birth of the universe and of creativity at the same time, as an actress comes out with a ball of stars and starts to play with light.

The sense of wonder is retained for most of the opening, taking us through some Matrix-like play with depth perception and some very good stand-alone set-pieces. Something darker begins to emerge, as we see an old woman, begging during the winter and close to death, stalked – or is it protected? – by a strange predatory figure. A butterfly emerges from its cocoon, only to be captured and pinned, transformed into an inanimate specimen.

Photo - Pavla Berezuka

The argument here is not entirely clear - something philosophical and spiritual, about the big bang and the creation of the earth, the explosion of human production, science and the subsequent struggle for existence.

I was left with little more than marvel – although that was quite enough for me (I never see this type of theatre). But rapture is one thing - if the play makes no considered argument, then it remains little more than a distraction. This is a young group, and there is no reason to think that they won’t dig deeper with time, resources, research and persistence.

The Trial, by Franz Kafka
Abandoned night club ‘XXI Century’
Theatre "Kryly halopa" Brest (Belarus)

Are you serious? They’re going to do the show here?

The abandoned night club XXI Century has to be the coolest venue I have ever seen theatre performed in. It reeks of Ukraine, the oversized Soviet architecture, the feeling of abandonment, like a monument to lost vision of the future.

Photo - Pavla Berezuka

When initially perusing the program, I noticed with interest the group Kryly Halopa, from Belarus, were doing a show in the festival, a version of Franz Kafka’s seminal text The Trial, no less, in a country not known for its fair judicial system. I was looking forward to this show more than any other.

It’s the most Brechtian show I have ever seen. Half curtain? Check. White face? Check. Characters randomly breaking out of song? Check. Feeling of a group of travelling players? Check. Fair dosage of direct address? I doubt there was ever a point where we were not being stared at by one of the actors.

Photo - Pavla Berezuka

The success of the play hinged on the success of the intriguing concept of blending these two powerful and iconic voices - one directorial, one literary. On one hand, the Joseph K figure largely seems to disappear, replaced with a collective argument about his plight from actors who sometimes stepped into his role. This has the effect of universality but loses the loneliness of Kafka’s writing, and possibly it’s revolutionary potential.

I write differently to the way I speak, I speak differently to the way I think, I think differently to the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” Kafka.

The success of this, I suppose, is in whether it’s replaced with something meaningful. This question will have to remain one for the ages, as, naturally, the Russian was again not in a hurry to be understood by me. If I had to guess, I would assume the answer to that would be “a little bit”.

All I can say is that the combination of Kafka and Brecht adds water to an already full potboil of dissent in artists coming out of Belarus. Maybe that is enough.

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