Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Theatertreffen - There Has Possibly Been An Incident

EDIT - On account of the depth of other critical writing about this show, I have written fairly dialectical criticism here. For a more in-depth description of the nuts and bolts of the play I recommend Catherine Love's review over at Exeunt here.


Are we living in a time when the ability to stand out from the crowd has been demonised? If so, are we left with just conformity?

Today, reality, as structured by language, is built on a combination of xenophobia (particularly anti-muslim sentiment), a nihilistic catastrophe fetish played and replayed by the media, embedded twins of patriarchy and capitalism, and of course, our old friend distraction, which deters the pursuit of these things. The most powerful narratives of our time exploit these for political gain. They are, mostly, sites of fear and oppression, and key generators of conformity. Today, the individual is so tied to the institution it is difficult to gain enough distance to look at it, and what it is doing.

There Has Possibly Been An Incident, performed as part of one of Germany's largest theatre institutions, Theatertreffen, addresses this reality and tries to find the language to shatter it.

We enter the theatre to a rock track too loud over the PA and performers busy at work setting up the stage with tape and microphones. Already there's a sense that we're going to work. The actors sit and begin to read, throwing their finished pages away as though language itself is dying as it is spoken. There is a bomb under this show - it's gun-to-the-head theatre.

I'll admit that this was the point, extremely early on, where I decided I was going to like this play. Spending all day in a workshop with its writer, thus having an insight into his targets and working processes, gave the work a clarity that it might otherwise not have had. Each blow seemed to land on me, I seemed to experience the performance as that lone person in a crowd. I found the language elusive, as though words caught fire out of the mouths of the actors and disappeared into ash, propelled by the inhuman, almost robotic performances by Gemma Brockis, Yusra Warsama and writer Chris Thorpe, moving close to emotion before pulling back. It's an important piece of writing, especially among in the British scene, and a perfectly executed piece of propaganda. It evokes certain trappings of recent history - the Bag-Man from Tienanmen Square, a kind of hybrid testimony of a terrorist - and some more abstract, spatial writing that seems to pull us across the skylines of cities and suddenly plunge into geo-politics. It's De Certeau meets Debord, and delivers a long, unfeeling requiem of humanism.

Its target, now not uncommon, is the similarities between the liberal left wing of Europe and its xenophibic far-right nationalism. This thread tracks the worrying rise of nationalist parties, particularly in Anders Breivik's home country of Norway, and the simultaneous failure of neoliberalism to address its morality (or lack thereof). The rhetoric is under examination, both from the terrorist and, in a more general way, the arguments for multi-national, inclusive Europe.

I have no qualms with this target. It's absolutely a good one. It's like listening to all of the crises of the 21st Century unravel and collapse together.

Into what, it's hard to say exactly. the cocktail of terrorist testimony, geopolitics, and the Bag-Man is dominated by a voice that drips with masculinity, almost military in its action-based speech, drilling home its commands. This problem - and I did find it a problem - was (at least in part) resolved by Chris Thorpe's performance in his own writing, both serving to pull focus from the other actors (though they hold their own, in different ways) and, in the scenes where he plays the terrorist, inserting himself into the moral problem he has created.

Amongst the barrage of morally compromising provocations, the most chilling line for me from the terrorist as he critiques multiculturalism in the young Left: "I wanted to make the point that the young already wanted to join the same project". This observation, perhaps it is even a quote from Breivik, is like much of what Breivik says, most confronting because it could equally come from the mouth of a terrorist or activist - certainly deluded in the case of multiculturalism, but more broadly indicative of a resistance to change of structures, an inability to even address them. It elevates the play into a self-critique. After all, it leaves the audience with largely nothing. There's no take-home message. It's essentially a self-aware failure.

There is a question about whether it delivers something outside of a left-wing critique, in which case, whether it did anything outside that closed circle. Would I have preferred something more human? More emotional? I don't think so. Within this context, the generation of emotion or effect leaves one open to appropriation, an event experienced by many artists under Nazi Germany. This is an illustration of crisis - and it is illuminated by force. It throws doubt over the power of individual action - is the answer this bag-man, walking out from the crowd to stand in front of the tank, waving his arms? Is it the individual's ability to act apart from the crowd? The irony - made perfectly clear here, is that this also perfectly describes a terrorist.

And that, to me, is something like what we are going through today. Yes, this play is a failure, but, perhaps like the Bag-Man, at least the attempt was made, even if the end of the story is not known.

Possibly that is everything.

There Has Possibly Been An Incident

Haus der Berliner Festspiele

Direction Sam Pritchard
Designer Signe Beckmann
Light Jack Knowles
Sound Sorcha Williams

With Chris Thorpe, Gemma Brockis, Yusra Warsama

Photo credit - Jonathan Keenan

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