March 2009 Archives

It's a stage set waiting to happen. Freud only used his study in Hampstead for a year before his death in 1939, but the furniture, books and multifarious artefacts were transported from Vienna when his supporters brokered a deal that allowed him out of Nazi Austria. The house - in which Freud's daughter Anna also lived and practiced, until her own death in 1982 - is now the Freud Museum. A visitor to 20 Maresfield Gardens finds a leafy street, a comfortable elegance, a plush hush - this was for decades the popular image of the atmosphere in which psychoanalysis would take place.

The museum is interesting (though not as much as it used to be, when it would invite artists to engage with Freud's thought and legacy; it now favours laborious historical displays). But the study is the room which draws the attention. Shaded, still, it beckons. It feels untouched - the pair of round-lensed specs on the desk only add to the impression that the abstracted owner may return at any moment. It's a shrine, but it's also dramatic - you can imagine it occupied

As in a theatre design, nothing in the room seems randomly chosen. Everything is quietly weighty with significance. And, like a designer, who is signalling just a little too eagerly, the room is terribly cluttered. Freud's teeming collection of figurines and antiquities sits in cabinets and, most portentously, in a rank at the back of his desk. They face the desk chair; equally they look away from the analysand in the couch. Freud found them friendly, but they might equally seem forbidding - a vast array of archetypes into which one's own petty traumas will be subsumed, losing any claim to particularity. And they're a reminder that anyone in Freudian analysis is only notionally alone on the couch. In they all crowd - parents, siblings, lovers, the dramatis personae of the primal drama.

The couch itself would offer a soft secular confessional. This, too, came from Berggasse 19, and is piled with cushions and rugs, soothing (smothering, even) the jagged edges of the psyche. It's a location for drowsy recollection, the dream-logic of association. The atmosphere of the room is surprisingly soporific. You might find it cosy, but thinking about it now I find it oppressive. So many tchotchkes, so much stuffing. Was the populous furniture of the mind suggested by Freud's work produced by a culture which crammed its rooms with so much furniture? Is Freudian thought the inevitable product of mahogany and ancient stone, of plumped cushions and well-padded sofas?

The study is in fact the setting for Hysteria, Terry Johnson's 1993 play about Freud, in which delirious with pain, he meets Dalí suffers the bizarre payback that may be due to one who has dealt with the volatile psyche. So much frenzy (libidinous, violent, familial) cannot be contained forever, and it erupts into the dying doctor's study. The room, in the original Royal Court production, ultimately warped and melted as if in a Dali canvas. Mad foreigners, unexpected arrivals, naked women in cupboards - Johnson understood grave psychoanalysis occupies a territory not unlike madcap farce, which in its classic incarnation often erupts into stolidly bourgeois homes like Maresfield Gardens. It would perhaps be fun if the Freud Museum would countenance a staging - or at least a reading - in the room itself. (Or perhaps of Nicholas Wright's Mrs Klein, a wonderfully spiky play about the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein - so attentive an analyst, so monstrous a mother. It's also sharp about the peculiar transposition of mitteleuropean intelligentsia to north London).

We read Freud as a visionary artist as much as a scientist, these days. Thinking about his study as an inherently theatrical space might only enhance the process.

March 30, 2009 11:21 PM | | Comments (3) |

There are many strange things about Marlowe's first play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, now revived at the National Theatre. Not that such a sardonic, cruel and plangent piece of theatre has been largely neglected for decades by the British stage. Nor that its construction is teasing (the squabbling gods interfere horribly with the hearts and minds of Dido and Aeneas, then lose interest and disappear from the play altogether, like toddlers in search of new distraction, new toys to break). Nor that what has at times seemed like an amorous tragic-farce ends abruptly, almost perfunctorily, in triple suicide, performed in quick succession.

No, oh best beloved, the real bafflement to the modern spectator is that Dido is one of several early modern plays which to us seem to surge with mature passion, or which are peppered by ruthless financial intrigue or by jokes born of a sophisticated and filthy mind, but which were written expressly for children. We are familiar with the idea that young actors played female roles on the professional stage (though scholars disagree about how youthful they might have been). But entire companies of children? What would it have been like to watch them?

If, like me, you think of High School Musical and shudder, think again. The kids' companies seem to have been the smartest, fleetest in a town not short of quickfire talkers. And though you might understand their grasp of farce, how did they encompass Aeneas' compulsive, shamed rhetoric as he describes the fall of Troy; or Dido's self-doubting torment as her lover sidles away? Were the young actors extraordinary, or were Elizabethan notions of what constituted a convincing performance very different to our own?

A while ago, for example, I read an obscure comedy written for a Jacobean children's company called The Fleer by a young lawyer called Edward Sharpham. The edition by Lucy Munro leaves no rudery unsignposted, until it becomes difficult to read on without your glasses steaming over - its plot follows the usurped, disguised duke of Florence as he tries to divert his daughters from the life of prostitution they are cheerfully embracing. Oh, it's rancid. You might think twice about letting your kids watch it, let alone act in it.

A friend recently described to me a performance by the lads of King Edward VI School, in Stratford-upon-Avon of Middleton's slavering city comedy, A Mad World, My Masters. She went with doubts and left dazzled - the jeers, chicanery and knob jokes seemed to come naturally to teenage boys. Fancy that. Even so, she admitted she was taken aback when the cast presented themselves for a Q&A at the end of the show, polite and restored to childhood once again in their school uniform. The past, which had crept close, slithered away and returned to strangeness.

March 27, 2009 12:38 AM | | Comments (0) |

A filmed display in the new theatre galleries at the V&A shows snippets of rehearsals from the National Theatre's The Wind in the Willows in 1990. Adapted by Alan Bennett from the British riverbank classic, it was a successful family show, easily transmuting its crotchety bachelor beasts (mole, toad, rat and badger) into roles for seasoned character actors.

As the film indicates, their research involved trips to the zoo and extensive improvisatory exercises exploring the essence of their particular furred or webbed creature. Only Michael Bryant, the experienced actor cast as Badger, refused to join in. Eventually the director packed him off with some videos of badger behaviour, and the next day asked what he'd learned. 'I have made a discovery about the habits of badgers,' the actor replied. 'Their movement and their posture have an extraordinary resemblance to Michael Bryant.'

Bryant had a point. Actors pretending to be furred beasts aren't supposed to mimic a nature documentary. It's a imaginative leap that we relish, the inter-species make believe (I've seen productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona dominated by an actor playing Crab the dog. Though, admittedly, not as many as have been stolen by a real mutt in the role).

But even more, an animal role reflects on our humanity. Estranged from playing a human, the actor makes our behaviour seem peculiar. Few take on the subject more explicitly than the extraordinary actor Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey at London's Young Vic. She's always a phenomenal performer. The first time I saw her, with Complicite, she played a husky Mafia boss, a tiny bearded ball of threat. Unconstrained by age or gender, her subsequent roles have included King Lear and Richard III, and next year she's Cleopatra with the RSC.

But we want the monkey! It's after the click:

March 24, 2009 6:25 PM | | Comments (0) |

They do these things differently in France. The thing in this case being not exquisite cuisine or bristling political protest, but how to approach their national tragic playwright.

Last week I went to Oxford to see Cheek By Jowl's bracing, nervy production of Racine's 1667 tragedy Andromaque on its British tour (there's a brief review here). The production opened at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris in 2007, and the French reviews I've read seem surprised by director Declan Donnellan's liberties - not so much the updating (the aftermath of the Trojan war becomes the bleak years following World War Two), or even the fact that he brings on stage Andromaque's son, unseen in the original, even though his survival is at the heart of the play's emotional blackmail. More than anything, it's the tone that is distinctive. With its callously mathematical purity of conception (A loves B, who loves C, who loves D, who loves her son and will do anything to protect him), the tragedy might easily become solemn. I imagine sonorous French performances, rolling Racine's mighty alexandrines like massy stones at the mouth of a tomb.

Donnellan's fine French cast sound quite different - they mutter, tensely, as if afraid of being overheard. They coo, spit, tantrum their lines. They are serious, with nerves like piano wire, but far too agitated to be solemn. What they are not - and this surprised me - is funny.

Funny? Could, should Racine be funny? Yes, actually. Humanity at the extremes, people behaving with appalling and helpless self-interest, is among many other things piercingly comic. One of Donnellan's masterstrokes when he produced Andromache in English in the 1980s (a production that helped give the young Cheek By Jowl its distinctive identity) was to identify a blackly sardonic humour. The 1940s setting allied the play with the bitter tragicomedies of film noir and postwar European cinema. It's a very English thing, possibly, but these classical adults who behave like emotionally incapable adolescents were horribly amusing.

Hermione, for example, a don't-mess princess who never saw a pedestal she didn't like, is a monster of amour propre. Even when she plans to leave the island, she doesn't intend to go quietly: 'When I leave here, I want all Epirus in tears.' I couldn't help smiling when that came up on the surtitles last weekend - give her a mink stole and some extra blusher, and she could be Joan Crawford - but it wasn't clear from this weekend's performance that this was expected.

Maybe I'm not hearing the nuances - I'd be fibbing if I claimed that I could catch quiet little ironies in French (English defeats me pretty often). But perhaps a sarky response to their great native tragedian would be a liberty too far for the French? Who knows what Helen Mirren, a performer for whom scalding rage, hurt and take-no-prisoners wit come easy and often simultaneously, will make of Racine's Phèdre at the National Theatre later this spring? If anyone can twist together tragedy and espresso-black comedy in Racine, it could be her.

March 23, 2009 12:47 AM | | Comments (0) |

Looking for Hamlet in a theatre display? At the new Theatre and Performance Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, you can see the prompt book and skull (signed by the cast) from the Royal Court's 1980 production starring Jonathan Pryce. There are Edward Gordon Craig's boldly monolithic sketches for his set designs. Or, rather madly, a Hamlet-themed costume for the girlie floorshow in a London nightclub from the 1970s. It's a headdress, on which castle, ghost and skull have been affixed, giving a Shakespearean crown to the boobage below.

This gives you a sense of the V&A's approach. Replacing the late - but not greatly lamented - Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, the new displays are avowedly heterogeneous. They bypass chronology and artistic genres for a thematic approach - the process of making, staging and selling performance. Thematic hangs have provoked doubts in the fine arts (notably, in Britain, at the Tate), but work better in the context of the V&A, a museum of craft and design which is concerned with making.

The objects here are all interesting to look at, but were not created to be regarded in this sort of context. They are part of a process - and how do you convey a sense of their intended function, their 'real' life? It's a vast brief, and there's limited space in the galleries (and their sumptuous but subdued design). We get a generous selection of film clips (I didn't realise that the museum films around 10 productions each year - a montage of curtain calls was particularly nicely chosen). But the curators' key decision was to take us through every aspect of the performance process, and to admit all forms of entertainment, from Shakespeare to circus, ballet to stadium concert.

High and popular art rub together. Everyone needs rehearsal and finance, after all, and wears slap and costume. Everyone requires some kind of space to prepare - though few will be quite as fluffy as Kylie's dressing room, an explosion of strappy shoes and soft toys, with a fur-blanketed chair in front of the mirror to soothe the queen of pert. The juxtapositions are sometimes startling, but make sense. Baby Mozart sits next to Pink Floyd, saying something about the power of the prodigal and the spread of hype. As a friend noticed, typefaces recur across time and genre on the wall of posters - a Led Zeppelin ad looks not unlike that for Victorian magician Rubini and his 'beheading a lady' speciality act. And there are some lovely echoes in the costume display - both Brian Eno and Lady Bracknell (in Maggie Smith's outfit from a West End revival) brandish jet black feathers: the plumes militant.

The costumes make for the most spectacular exhibits, conveying the stage's love of fantasy. Poetic fantasy: Fonteyn's tutu, black as midnight. Cartoon fantasy: Gerald Scarfe's scarlet-horned Pluto from Orpheus in the Underworld. And then, in a carnivalesque category all her own, are two highlights from Dame Edna Everage's wardrobe - a vast oval hat crowned by a replica of the Sydney Opera House, and a frock bearing a generous serving of the great British breakfast (love the baked beans dripping round the décolletage).

Although fans of pretty will love these sections of the gallery, they are if anything too pristine. Apart from Richard Burton's battle-scarred jerkin from Henry V, you'd never guess these creations had ever been worn, or that they were fundamentally working clothes. It might have been fascinating to see some examples that have to be broken down to make them seem like clothes rather than costumes.

The display keeps an eye on finance (a delicious Edwardian costume sits next to the unforgiving account book). And it pays attention to censorship, including a glimpse of the Lord Chamberlian's feared blue pencil striking out smut, and the license for Joe Orton's Loot, heavily attended with provisos ('Omit "Shag their birds!"'). There are also some great examples of merchandising and souvenirs, with a particularly desirable showbiz board game ('Your name is very small on the posters: back to number 13').

Some of the displays speak to other parts of the V&A collection - of fashion, print, posters and photography, for example. You might say that these objects are all interesting as craft items, or as totems faintly bearing the spore of the theatre. But what about the theatricality? The art? I'm not sure that's possible.

Can a museum ever capture the spirit of the theatre? Should it even try? Has anyone seen a truly successful display?

March 19, 2009 6:27 PM | | Comments (0) |

How do you tell a life through dance? Or, at least, give an impression of someone's life and work. A conventional printed biography can do this: but ballet?

Kenneth MacMillan's attempt to encapsulate the phenomenon that was Isadora Duncan was considered tantalising but uneven when it premiered in 1981. An ambitious project, Isadora was a full-length ballet which cast two Isadoras - a dancer and an older actress - threading together flash-back-and-forwards scenes from her life and loves, heavy with readings from her memoirs and letters.

Last week, the Royal Ballet produced a one-act reboot of this material. This features a dancer only, although a voiceover (tremulously plumy Nicola McAuliffe) recites choice passages from her writings at some length. Although fascinating in potential, the production desperately lacks theatrical sophistication. Deborah MacMillan, the choreographer's widow and tenacious keeper of the flame, claims that the work aims to be 'impressionistic... as though we're invited into Isadora's head, overhearing her thoughts and recollections as she remembers her past.' This translates into slabs of overheated voiceover, attractive video, and often over-literal danced episodes, all scrappily strung together with a perfunctory ending. I feel retrospectively more admiring of Robert Lepage's Eonnagata. This meditation on an 18th-century androgyne was hardly an invigorating evening, but suggested with far greater intelligence the shape of a life, the passing of time, how to turn a biography into a dreamy masque.

How else can dance play with biography? Some ideas after the click:

March 16, 2009 6:40 PM | | Comments (0) |

What are the uses of 'abroad' to a playwright? In a piece I wrote earlier today for the Guardian theatre blog, I wondered a little about how British playwrights had historically used foreign locations, and why. In Renaissance drama, this is particularly striking - above all, the Mediterranean was the place they selected for romances and identical twins, for baroque masques of poisoning and strangulation, for unguarded sex and swashbuckle.

These locations not only provided colour, they allowed dramatists to explore themes that might be politically sensitive or morally dubious - the stark cruelties of power, say, in Jacobean tragedy, or a saucy reversal of sexual norms (as in the play which prompted these reflections, The Custom of the Country by Fletcher and Massinger, a rarely-revived romp unearthed by the acting school RADA).

But what are authors looking for when they choose a foreign location? Accuracy seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind (The Custom of the Country is set in a Lisbon which is positively dripping with transgressive desire, plus sorcery on the side). Instead, a theatrical location represents an idea, and it's interesting to see what kind of ideas resonate with authors. For English authors of the 16th and 17th centuries, it would seem that warm climates allowed a finely nuanced culture to throw off its pained calibrations and explore extremes of desire and political orders.

But what do other cultures look for in farflung locations? Brecht's America (or, rather, Amerika) was a gangster exaggeration of Weimar Germany, offering an attractively vast landscape to sharkish entrepreneurs. Do artists from cold countries perhaps swoon at the idea of hotter climes (Ibsen's desert interlude in Peer Gynt, for example, or Petipa's Russian ballet Don Quixote)?

Commerce surely has a lot to do with how nations perceive the wider world. As a thrusting commercial nation, early modern England was actively engaged in finding new bits of abroad to trade with. Commercial exchanges might also prompt other kinds of engagement, exposing English Protestant ethics to the Islamic world. Several plays combine derring-do with scenes of forced - or willing - religious conversion. Plays like Robert Daborne's A Christian Turned Turk (1612) ask what might be lost and gained when identity itself becomes a commodity. Equally, Othello's uncomfortable intensity is heightened by taking the characters out of Europe and confining them on a small Islamic island, seemingly cast adrift from certainties.

But where do nations famous for amassing immigrants (and then moving back out across the globe) - Americans, Australians, or Canadians - locate fantasy versions of their own cultures, in either recent or classic plays? How about China, Japan or India? Not for the first time writing this blog, I'm humbled by how little I know. I'm hoping you'll fill in some of the blanks.

March 13, 2009 1:12 AM | | Comments (0) |

We often think about sound and vision in theatre - but what about smell? I saw a cracking first play at the Royal Court Theatre last night - A Miracle by Molly Davies, set in rural Norfolk, the arable corner of eastern England. The audience sat on all four sides of a small stage, which was floored with damp mud, scrubby bits of grass and a mess of fallen leaves turning to sludge by the roundabout. But the most distinctive thing about Patrick Burnier's set wasn't the immediate sense of place, or the fact that your bag got smeared if you put it on the floor. It was the smell - a dank loamy scent that settled into your lungs with the heavy air of rural misery.

As the sharp little play continued, man handing on misery to man (or, more pertinently, mother to daughter), the moist depressed air seemed to hang about, immersing us in the characters' flat world under big grey skies.

It's this total immersion experience that scent in the theatre can encourage. Food of course plays a big role, especially when characters are cooking on stage. Saturday Sunday Monday by Eduardo de Filippo triumphed at Olivier's National Theatre in 1973 in a production by Zeffirelli, its raucous Italian family cooking up an alla marinara storm and making stomachs rumble. In a less affluent age, audiences responded powerfully to Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954), set in a genteel beachfront hotel. It wasn't just the play's staunchly suppressed passions that provoked a whimper. The experience of rationing was still very current, so reviews marvelled longingly at the waft of hot toast coming from the dining room.

Of all the stage smells I've experienced, the one I best remember was in a fine production of Euripides' The Phoenician Women, directed by Katie Mitchell for the RSC. As we took our seats, everyone was handed a sprig of thyme, and as the tale of brutal war and human sacrifice developed, we clutched our sprigs tighter. In our hot, anxious hands, the pungent scent of the crushed herb rose and filled the theatre - wild, acrid, plangent. An unforgettable effect.

Do you remember a scent that enhanced your stage experience? Let me know your best theatrical whiffs...

March 10, 2009 3:26 PM | | Comments (2) |

So many books, so little shelf space. I was weeding out playtexts today (I come from a line of great-aunt hoarders, and know that there's a bags-in-the-bathtub scenario which sits at the worst-case end of the stockpile spectrum).

There's a version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler that I've been havering over. It's by Lucy Kirkwood, and, to be honest, is pretty flawed. Performed by the Gate Theatre in London's Notting Hill last year, transposes the play to the same desirable district - a posh area with boho pretentions. It's certainly Hedda territory, just the over-priced locale she'd demand - but a setting which references the streets beyond the auditorium becomes tricky. It's harder than ever to avoid the notion posed bluntly by Toby (Kirkwood's equivalent of the insinuating Judge Brack): 'get a bloody job, Hedda.' Although Hedda swallows a memory stick rather than shoving the manuscript of Lovborg's masterpiece into the furnace, the adaptation, if anything, otherwise hugged Ibsen's original too closely to work.

However, there was one spine-tingling moment in which Kirkwood levered open her heroine's well-defended inner life.

Want to meet Hedda's moose? Join me after the click:

March 7, 2009 5:11 PM | | Comments (4) |

'You can't come in without your ticket,' said the usher at the Roundhouse as I made my way back after the interval of Hofesh Shechter's rousing dance set. 'But but but, I've just come out of there,' I spluttered. 'I've left my coat on the seat. I've left my gloves!' Suddenly, I sounded like an Edwardian baronet. Thankfully a lovely press officer intervened and got me back inside before I could start leaving my calling card or challenging someone to a duel.

This can happen when dance leaves nice quiet theatres where everyone sips white wine in the interval and murmurs appreciatively at the programme notes. The Roundhouse is an iconic London music venue. When it does host plays, like the RSC Histories cycle, conventional theatre seating is shipped in. For too-cool-for-school choreographer Shechter, however, the evening followed gig rules. An almighty band thumped on the gantry, while most of the audience throbbed towards the stage with moshpit fervour (critics were stashed upstairs in proper seats, as we get nervous out of our familiar environment). It was undeniably exciting to see a mass of bobbing heads when lights raked over the audience, and startling when camphones and flashes lit up every few seconds. Some of the dancehouse reverence was rubbed away; and if that means ushers who take you for a gig-ligging louse, that's the price.

How far can gig rules extend into the theatre? I've not been convinced by the call for twittering, mid-performance conversation and other demonstrations of audience engagement over on Greg Sandow's ArtsJournal blog. He's talking about classical concerts, which may be a slightly different beast to theatre and dance. But even when I'm reviewing (I'm quite the scribbler), I worry that my notes might disturb my neighbours. Dramatic pauses and dance performances without any score are a particular anxiety, ready to be filled with nothing but the sound of my scritching pen. In return, I'm routinely disturbed by yawners, bellows breathers, bottom shufflers and specs tappers. I've just come back from The Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera, an evening spotted with phone trills, sweet wrappers and a punter who unleashed a fit of bronchial krakatoa during the overture. You may feel cool as you tweet from your seat, but it's a sussurating distraction like any other.

Now, concentration doesn't always come easy. I'm as likely as anyone to think about dinner, or a catalogue of personal humiliation and inadequacy during the fallow moments of a night at the theatre. But though the silently attentive audience may be a 19th-century invention, it's not a bad one. Along with coketown capitalism, colonial hauteur and sexual repression, the bourgeoisie imposed the notion of capital-A Art, no doubt as a cover for all of the above. And also the notion that art deserved our full attention, to be met on its own terms rather than meekly fitting in with ours.

And guess what? Silence isn't a bad way to experience theatre, dance or music. Going to a play, a concert, an exhibition, like reading a book or listening to a friend in need - these activities are about putting the thrilling boom of your own ego on hold, fairly briefly, and paying attention to something else. Really, how hard is that? Can we no longer simply give consideration to something that isn't ourselves? Are the multiple sympathies of which the human mind is capable now reduced to a status message on Facebook? Maybe, instead of the apologetic list of announcements about phones, pagers and other interruptions, theatres should just hold up a big sign at the start of the show: It's Not About You.

Is the Monkey just being grouchy here, or dragging his paws? How much audience interaction can a performance take? Let me know what you think.

March 5, 2009 12:43 AM | | Comments (6) |

We've discussed before whether shows need programme notes to make sense to an audience. But what about shows that seem ready-made for academic discussion? Eonnagata, which premiered tonight at Sadler's Wells, was perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated show in the London dance season. Ballerina Sylvie Guillem and choreographer Russell Maliphant have collaborated on several dance pieces, but what seemed mouthwatering was the involvement of magical theatre director Robert Lepage. Their project explored one of the 18th century's most fabulous self-creations, and to cap it all was dressed by fashion provocateur Alexander McQueen. It should have been unbearably exciting.

There's a very dashing show to be made about the Chevalier d'Eon. A transvestite spy, swordsman and salonnière in pre-Revolutionary France (and a relic of his own celebrity after the Revolution), s/he adopted different genders so often that in the end no-one was sure whether the Chevalier was man or woman. He possibly had more fun as a man (it was the 18th century, after all), but managed a fair bit of derring-do in skirts. You can imagine an opera, a pantomime, a very classy comedy. What you get at Sadler's Wells is a doctorate. Eonnagata practically writes its own thesis for you as it goes along.

What is gender? An essential truth, a cultural construct, a psychological choice? All of the above? Discuss - or, as here, illustrate, slowly. The three artists all play d'Eon, each embodying middlesexed figures who aren't male or female - they're just dressed that way. McQueen's clothes turn the body into an argument - swaddled in quilted kabuki wear, padded to play with gender, wrapped like a gift.

Just as costumes aren't only worn in this show, props aren't merely used. Both are, above all, fetishised. Every object onstage carries a solemn iconographic weight. The sword is the badge of masculine identity, the fan of feminine. When the elderly Chevalier is forced to peddle her celebrity in public displays of swordsmanship, the production gives us a combat between a stick and a ring, and you don't need Freud to point out what's going on.

As the title suggests, the Chevalier's story is presented through the prism of Japanese culture (the onnagata is the male actor who plays female roles in kabuki theatre). Especially as played by shaven-headed Maliphant, d'Eon the warrior seems a samuri, torn between spirituality and martial assertion. In feminine guise, she's a kabuki heroine, perhaps a doll. It's not surprising that this figure whose every aspect is symbolic should be viewed through references to Japan, which Barthes called the empire of signs.

Notation would reveal that the movement avoids straight lines - it's all curves, spirals, twisting around a question-mark identity. As d'Eon leaves childhood, the playful suspension of gender is left behind - from here on in it's a series of binary choices. Male/female - you can't embody both at once. There's a lot of threshold symbolism, stepping reluctantly through doorways. A final autopsy (the Chevalier was defined, on posthumous examination, as male) involves a harsh pendulum, tick-tocking between Guillem and Maliphant, refusing the ambiguities of blur and shadow.

The Chevalier was (along with everything else) an ardent bibliophile. Not sure that an academic treatise is the right response to her life, however. What do you get in the theatre that you couldn't on the page (even a page with a full bibliography and exhaustive footnotes)? The physical presence of three charismatic performers, lit and dressed with sculptural attention. And, in particular, Lepage's admission of age and weariness, swabbing off the greasy white facepaint when alone: you can invent a gender in public, but who are you to yourself, in your own midnight mirror?

Lepage has always been able to invest a homely image with cosmic significance - the shoe boxes that suggest a lonely city in The Dragons' Trilogy, the visual consonance between a washing machine and the moon in The Far Side of the Moon. These are breathtaking acts of imagination, playing with time and scale, grave but wonderfully playful. Eonnagata, however, stays grounded on its own deliberation. It's interesting to think about. But kind of dull to watch.

March 3, 2009 12:03 AM | | Comments (0) |

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Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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