Features Reviews Published 24 April 2013

Project Colony: critiquing the critique

Following Daniel B. Yates' review of Fourth Monkey's Project Colony, an immersive, site-specific adaptation of Franz Kafka's 'In the Penal Colony', Ella Parry-Davies responds to some of the questions thrown up in the wake of the production.
Ella Parry-Davies

“There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”– Gilles Deleuze

With chagrined acuity, Gilles Deleuze writes his ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’ in the spring of 1990, a prescient vision of the network society which would germinate in ‘80s neo-liberalism, and bloom in the ‘90s and noughties in the form of outsourcing, precarious labour and free Wifi in Starbucks. The self-employed, media-savvy yuppie participates in the metallic churning of the contemporary economy even while congratulating herself for ‘putting the free in freelance’, relaxing on Sundays with a soya latte over an Excel spreadsheet. “Copywriter Charlie Allenson loves being a freelancer. For him, the biggest perk is having the ability to design his own work schedule, which he says has transformed his life. You see, Charlie is not just a wordsmith – he’s also a rock star.” There is no off switch.

That,for Daniel, “Fourth Monkey wanted it both ways; to be an artificial simulation which pretended towards community as well as something that encouraged a communality in proceedings” nuances their approach to a Kafka of the 21st century, and yet is not enough to find new weapons. As a piece of immersive theatre, Fourth Monkey toyed with the systemic participation demanded by what’s been called ‘late late Capitalism’, the corporate incorporation of energetic labour that demands, as Jon McKenzie would have it, that we perform – or else (and enjoy it). As “spect-actors”, we were compelled into the co-creation of a fiction of community in a mode that exposed it as a fiction – or, as DBY’s above, a shimmering Baudrillardian simulacrum. The relentlessness of the aesthetic alone – every curl in place, every smile forced and polished, the endless Flossies, Pollys and Peggies – was enough to ensure we knew it belied a darker subcurrent; one that we were asked to be complicit in ignoring. “Enjoy the party!” we are vehemently (sometimes desperately) instructed, again and again.

Is that implicit insecurity, the gesture to our complicity in masking it, enough to constitute the spectator as Brechtian observer, or Rancièrian critic, who tolerates the fiction with the double consciousness of knowing it as such? Whilst Daniel found the scenario “alienating,” he contends that the production couldn’t help but celebrate, rather than queer, the imagined sense of communality that keeps the nation state ticking over in the face of postcolonial, post-industrial disintegration: it was, he claims, “a celebration of what the privately-educated classes do best: perform their vintage, to authenticate a British retro by doing it better.” This suggests a performed re-enactment which straightforwardly re-invigorates, a sheep in sheep’s clothing. The consolidation by repetition of learnt societal patterns (in 2012, ‘40s austerity-chic, British solidarity and the inevitable sodding ‘Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping’ poster) might, then, seem to endorse such punishing rehearsals of nationhood as the Olympics and the “bunting-laden” Jubilee.

Despite this, in interview the performers protest that audiences hit back: “Do you want me to help you find the fourth wall?” taunted one guest. And yet I’d argue that even spectatorial dissent or alienation from such grinning nationalism is not enough here to furnish us with what Deleuze so bluntly affirms as the “new weapons.” Because in this society of freelancers and Charlie’s versatile rôles, of multiculturalism and the Paralympic opening ceremony, of participatory and “applied” theatre, where every “co-creator” is special and where difference is not just celebrated but reaped, Blair’s sugary invitation to be part of the “diversity” of Pomo Britain just results in a new hegemony. As Claire Bishop has observed, New Labour’s social inclusion agenda for the arts was less about real solidarity, and more about enabling us to be self-administering, functional consumers; and the “devolution of responsibility” from the state to “socially-engaged” arts and the individual only increased with Cameron’s Big Society. The “modernist apologia” that steels Kafka’s texts, the Beckettian self-sabotage which asks us only to fail again and fail better, is not enough in such a climate, where even aesthetic failure is pre-empted and recuperated. The “granularity”, or multiplicity, of experience – the claim that all happenings are subjective and worthwhile – is already the fodder of AHRC grant applications and the daily bread of fringe theatre.

What worked about the production, then, was less its foray into immersive and site-responsive styles, forms which, Daniel claims, have sprung up in the face of the disneyfication and consumer-led decline of “regular theatre-going”, and more about a subtler juxtaposition of theatrical modalities, which itself foregrounded an ambivalence over the spectatorial capacity for action. From the basement space where, freezing and in cramped rows, we listened to detailed explications of a killing machine which inscribes the broken law repeatedly, with needles, deeper into the skin for twelve hours until death, we are returned above ground, to a world in which we are needled into other forms of acquiescence: sweet-toothed, affectionate, but compulsory. Apparent failure, apparent otherness, are rewarded in this post-Beckettian hyperreality, this “gothic-of-the-mundane”. The derelict, liminal space of Trinity Buoy Wharf has been regenerated by hipster artisans, and Daniel’s clumsy, beer-swilled destrcution of a jenga tower, reminding me of some Lyotardian toppling of hierarchy (so we’re told),  is rewarded with a bag of sweets.

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Ella Parry-Davies

Ella is a research student working in interdisciplinary approaches to theatre and performance studies, funded by King's College London and the National University of Singapore, and also publishes regularly on illustration. She is currently co-convenor of Beirut: Bodies in Public, a conference held in association with Performance Philosophy, and of Research with Reach, a training initiative based at King's for thoughtful, provocative and engaging research outside of academia. She is from east London but has also lived and worked professionally as a set designer in France

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