1. Self Impersonation
There was a remarkable moment the first time I saw Deborah Pearson’s The Future Show. Sat at a desk on an otherwise empty stage, she reads from a script a description of everything that she anticipates will happen after the performance ends, beginning with the audience’s applause and moving onwards through subsequent days and months and years with all the breathtaking, almost overwhelming elegance of watching some great bird unfurl its wings and pull itself slowly up into the sky. It’s a beautiful feat of conceptual writing, and yet it was not this writing that most unsettled me, but rather an almost throwaway moment of performance about 10 minutes in when Deborah delivered what can only be described as an impersonation of herself.
Moving briefly from the narratorial first person into a slither of imagined conversation, Deborah seemed to slip uncannily into her own skin despite us not having realised that she was out of it in the first place. It felt like watching a magic trick in reverse, a pulling aside of the curtain to reveal the machinery of the performance itself. In the act of becoming herself, Deborah suddenly makes clear how constructed, how deliberate, how performed the ‘Deborah’ that we had been watching up to that point was. What had appeared to be an entirely ‘unmatrixed’ performance – a person simply sitting on a stage and reading – was revealed to be the function of a series of deliberate dramaturgical choices; a scene arranged as carefully as those in far more complicated-seeming productions. This feeling was only reinforced when Deborah casually mentioned that though we had not realised it, the everyday outfit she is wearing is actually a carefully chosen costume.
2. Resistant Players
What does it mean to witness a performer reading a script onstage? For Karen Juers-Munby these transgressive documents are ‘resistant players’; rogue parts dislodged from their intended place and positioned here onstage to unsettle the smooth running of the theatre machine. Referencing the Wooster Group’s legendary speed reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in L.S.D (… just the high points…) and more recent work by Proto-Type Theatre, she identifies how these visible acts of reading create a thrilling tension between the written word and its performance, a resistance that undermines the representation of truth or authenticity and in doing so disturbs the process of ideological normalization – transforming stages into spaces of antagonism, contradiction and dissent.
In both her examples, the visible script renders explicit the play of voices taking place between writer and performer. But what happens then when, as in Deborah Pearson’s work or Chris Thorpe’s or Christopher Brett Bailey’s eviscerating new piece THIS IS HOW WE DIE, the visible script is actually written by the person speaking it?
For me, the effect is almost the opposite – far from being a ‘resistant player’, the script is a willing accomplice in the construction of an elegantly simple theatrical illusion. Sat there on stage, held in the hands of its writer, the script performs its own primacy within the work. It makes itself appear to be the most important thing happening. The other stage furniture – a chair, a table, a microphone – arrange themselves around it – an almost-parody of a theatrical culture in which everyone and everything serves the written word. It is seducing us, this script, into imagining that everything we are seeing is here for its benefit. That we are watching a ‘reading’ with all the fixity of role and linearity of purpose that implies. This writer is here to read their words and we are here to listen.
All this is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. A manufactured simplicity. A performance of the relationship between writer and script by artists who are not in thrall to either. In this scenario it is the artist themselves, not the script, who is the resistant player, drawing us into this familiar set of writerly conventions only to undermine them.
3. The Rest Is Noise
Christopher Brett Bailey is sat on stage, tucked behind a small square table like it’s restraining him, holding him in place. There is a momentary pause as the audience settle into silence, and then with the menacing howl of a demented radio announcer, the words begin. Chris speaks these words with a casual ferocity, line after line after line after line after line delivered with the nonchalant precision of a teenager skimming stones across a lake.
The pace is unrelenting and the narrative is dizzyingly disorientating. I barely remember any detail, only the feeling – ultraviolence, exhausting momentum, a kind of dazzled incredulity, and a moral hopefulness, or the hope maybe for goodness amidst the cartoon detritus. Narrative threads reel away like startled horses. Turns of phrase unshackle themselves from language and start charging around inside the story – a man breaks and rebreaks his own body so that he can become a literal ‘walking Swastika’.
Tim Etchells once said that Forced Entertainment’s work would be ‘understandable by anyone brought up in a house with the television on.’ For all its hysterical savagery, Chris’ writing would surely be equally understandable to anyone who has ever spent too much time on the internet. Crumbling narratives, unreal juxtapositions, jokes repeated to the point of horror, horror repeated to point of beauty and in the middle of all of this, both literally and figuratively, Chris himself, a baffled bystander in his own preposterously imagined autobiography.
The familiar apparatus of the staged reading – desk, chair, writer, microphone – invites us to try and follow this torrent of words and images like we would any story. We pursue it down dead ends and off the edge of cliffs, through the heart of darkness and out the other side, out of breath, out of our minds, starving, hysterical, trying, as Chris himself does, to make sense of it all. But in the end there is nothing to be made sense of. In the end all these words become not so much stories as textures and rhythms. Chris is a musician in the costume of a writer, preparing for a deafening crescendo that will obliterate all our futile attempts at rationalising chaos.
The figure of the writer, in both THIS IS HOW WE DIE and The Future Show, is exactly that – a figure, a spectre, a theatrical device. Their fictional autobiographies (one past, one future) constitute sisyphean acts of writing – attempts to describe, make sense of and thus perhaps retain some agency over the impossible hugeness and unpredictability of the world, whether it be the savagery of the society we inhabit or simply the unknowable paths of our own futures.
In both cases the static staging and the visible script are not merely decisions made of convenience but rather the props by which Deborah and Chris render themselves as characters within their own fictions. Artists playing writers, caught in impossible attempts to contain the world in language. And we the audience are taken in by this fiction and then taken along for the ride.
Inevitably neither attempt ends with success – the world continues to exist beyond the limits of our obsessive attempts to describe and control it. Instead we end in both cases with the opposite of words – the blissful release of nothingness, Chris lost in total noise, Deborah in infinite silence.