A terrible mistake is made when booking the press ticket to John-Luke Roberts: Terrible Wonderful Adaptations. Exeunt have sent two reviewers and no one at the Pleasance press office seems to have noticed. One reviewer is me and the other is Roland Barthes. We cannot decide who is better qualified to review the show. Roland points out to me that Roberts and tonight’s roster of comedians are adapting his own book – 1977’s A Lover’s Discourse – the seminal and much admired philosophical treatise on the performance and meaning of being in love.
On the other hand, I point out to Roland that he has been dead for 38 years. “This is fine,” Roland sighs, “I’ll give you some pointers if you write it all up later.” I happily agree.
When Roland sees the size of the crowd assembled to watch an adaptation of his book, his face is a mixture of bemusement and marvel. A veneer of skepticism emerges though, when Roberts enters dressed in a Cupid costume, splendid in red fairy wings, with plastic bow-and-arrows and a large nappy made from a towel. “Very silly. Very silly” says Roland, shaking his head, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair. But I can see the edges of his mouth curl just slightly. He is enjoying this more than he is letting on.
Soon we are onto the acts who will each be ‘adapting’ a chapter of A Lover’s Discourse. Comedy duo Shelf kick things off, performing the different feelings of absence that Barthes details in the book’s second chapter ‘The Absent One’. The two comics contrast their attitudes towards each other being absent: casual and nonchalant vs near-existential despair. As I laugh through the pair’s exquisite clowning and lip-syncing, Roland leans over. He seems amused. “Just like the child misses the mother,” he whispers in my ear. And then for some reason he says it again. I feel a little uncomfortable.
During Sh!t Theatre’s performance of ‘The Tip of the Nose’, Roland is initially skeptical. “This,” he whispers scornfully, and with more than a hint of sass, “is what I meant when I wrote ‘the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image.’” He laughs at his own joke through a closed mouth. But he is easily won over. There is some gag about an envelope that no one else really gets, except for Roland. He almost shouts his laugh, and falls slightly in his seat, wiping tears from his eyes. Eventually he is able to whisper something to me about “the envelope of devotion rips apart” and reinforces it by making a ‘ripping apart’ gesture with his hands, as if I will understand.
Firmly onside now, Roland is fascinated by Tom Walker and Demi Lardner’s ‘adaptation’ of the chapter ‘Waiting’. Having not understood the text, they instead re-enact the process of reading, taking it in turns to be pages of the book. Roland and I, like most of the audience, howl with laughter throughout. He reaches out his arms and gesticulates flamboyantly, nearly shouting, “This is it! This is what I was writing about!” I look at him as if to say, “really?” But as the performance becomes increasingly violent, surreal and intrusive, I think I understand. “Is it about how the anxieties and tensions of waiting make all externalities stricken with unreality?” I hazzard, paraphrasing from the appropriate chapter of his book. “Oh something like that,” he says, batting my words away with a dismissive flick of his hand.
I don’t really understand any of Kieran Hodgson’s narrative about a small-town Scotsman’s search for affection, which is supposedly based on Barthes’ chapter ‘Events, Setbacks, Annoyances’. But Roland is pretty engrossed. He nods throughout, occasionally saying things like “yes, yes, very clever, very clever”. He is similarly satisfied with David McIver’s interpretation of ‘We Are Our Own Demons’. Because McIver is dressed as Hellboy and his bit is almost entirely a summary of the film Hellboy II: The Golden Army, released 28 years after Roland died and not in any meaningful way connected to A Lover’s Discourse, I lean over to give a little more context. But again, he flaps me away like I am an over-concerned parent. “I am trying to listen,” he insists.
Roland is becoming over-excited. When Erin McGathy asks if any reviewers are in the audience during her rendition of the chapter ‘Show Me Whom to Desire’, he almost leaps from his seat and waves his hand in the air, screaming, “Me! Me! Pick me!” But McGathy doesn’t see him and instead brings someone named Kate onstage, who says she’s from The Guardian. Playing with Barthe’s sentiments on mediated desire in mass culture, (which Barthes claims both shows and prohibits), McGathy stages a whole 3-minute play behind a big white sheet, Kate the only audience. Roland is on the edge of his chair. He yanks my reviewer’s notebook from my grasp and scrawls in big block capitals: “THIS IS HOW WE WATCH ALL ART, AS IF THROUGH A SHEET, REMOVED ALWAYS FROM THE OBJECT WE DESIRE. THUS DESIRE AND WATCHING ARE ALWAYS SOLITARY” He pens the last full stop with a heavy finality, re-reads his own words, underlines the word ‘always’ seven or eight times and thrusts the notebook back into my still-open hand. When he turns back towards the performance, he does not look at me again, as if we have not interacted.
In fact Roland and I do not communicate again during Kimber Hall’s likeable performance of ‘In Praise of Tears’, in the guise of a tear fairy who spreads tears around the audience like a Puck made of mist and shadows. I gently touch Roland’s shoulder. I know why he is worried. In the book’s final chapters, Barthes’ philosophy acquires a more personal register as he considers issues of depression and estrangement. I can sense his consequent relief when Terrible Wonderful Adaptations for the first time breaks the book’s chronology and goes back eleven chapters to ‘I Love You’, performed by Amrou Alkadhi’s drag queen persona Glamrou la Denim.
When Glamrou delivers a precise and astute ‘Barthian’ reading of the audience’s applause – which we give to convey a performance of ourselves rather than to commit to sincere meaning – I think Roland himself is a little bit in love. Although, after watching this wonderful, terrible adaptation of A Lover’s Discourse, I am not really sure anymore what the meaning of that is, or how it should be performed.
Terrible Wonderful Adaptations is on until Friday 24th August at Pleasance. More info here.