The UK premiere of a piece of French performance art – blending juggling, movement, mud and poetry – that features the word ‘existential’ in its own publicity was clearly not for the cynical of heart. The Mud Man (or to give it its proper title L’homme de Boue) is set in a pit of clay that supposedly recalls mankind’s ‘disturbing desire to return back to mud.’ As one who tends to walk around puddles I have evidently suppressed this urge very deeply. In common with any regular theatregoer, I was yet again destined to be mercilessly shaken out of my middle-class complacency by people ten years my junior bearing a fistful of post-structuralist texts and the hard-smoked wisdom of an undergraduate course in comparative literature. Sensibly the organisers slap on an age limit and insist that anyone younger than eight be forbidden entry. This is because children have particularly acute bullshit detectors and aren’t afraid to use them. Whatever questions we were supposed to ask ourselves about primal rage, I suspect they do not include “why have we paid £13 of cash money to watch a man in his underwear do five minutes of juggling and fifty-five minutes of rolling around in the mud?”
The evening got off to a sulk as I whinged at the theatre door about having my hand stamped with ink – a branding that is still visible the next day despite repeated, frenzied scrubbing. A hard-copy ticket, one supposes, symbolises everything that’s wrong with the bourgeois transactional culture of theatre. The venue’s commitment to a Green-friendly paper-free night excluded the two copies I was handed of a French poem and its English translation: a free verse medley of verbless sentences and arch references to wombs and darkness. How refreshing, and genuinely subversive, it would have been to instead set Pam Ayres’ Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth to movement.
An increasing menace in today’s theatrical climate is the apparent need for a pre-show briefing. The audience cannot be trusted to behave decorously and react spontaneously. It is a rich and blatant irony of these hyper-creative boundary-defying pieces that audiences are free to think and do anything, provided it exclusively accords with the director’s vision (the director is also, in these instances, not a director but a ‘dramaturg’ or possibly animateur). Fortunately even amongst the audience’s hipster and academic-bohemian types, a dissenting spirit prevailed and the festival’s co-director was moved to sarcastically call-out a middle-aged couple who dared to continue a private conversation during the briefing. The woman shot back a withering look that, to my mind, provided the evening’s sole instance of erotic frisson.
We were told, in so many terms, that although the fourth wall wasn’t going to be broken, it was going to be splattered with mud. This was a testament to the performer’s intensity and apparently the secret is to let the mud dry naturally, scrape it off, then gently wash with cold water. Those of us wearing dry-clean-only would simply have to lump the lumps of clay flailing around the theatre.
We took our seats – although some people sat too far back and, like the stragglers who respond to the ‘over-the-top-boys’ whistle by suddenly finding urgent work to do at the back of the trench, were grimly ordered forward – and as a chink of light was permitted in the enveloping darkness, we dimly perceived that the mud pit around which we sat was now occupied by a man clad only in tremendously tight underwear.
One of the pleasures of dance is an admiration of the lithe athleticism of the dancer: figures of High Renaissance musculature seamlessly and hypnotically moving between positions of super-human contortion and beauty. As figures as divergent as Kenneth Clark and Leni von Riefenstahl understood, there is a complicated erotic response to the pleasure generated by the human form. In today’s climate such interest is dismissed as prurient and voyeuristic, where a sexually charged but ultimately disinterested appreciation of the human form (a response that has its roots as far back as Socrates’ second speech on the insanity of love from Plato’s Phaedrus) is almost entirely lost from our critical vocabulary. Instead we are more comfortable worrying about the objectification of the performer, and hence the need to conjure up daft and pretentious intellectual narratives to justify a performance and – the true end of most theatre that has its roots in academic theory – increase the paying audience’s self-loathing.
Instead of the pursuit of beauty, our Mud Man is connected to a rather disparate and sad movement within Performance Art, of reclaiming dance so that those of us sporting a fuller figure may no longer be excluded from representation on stage. So in the name of equality, a vaguely overweight man in painfully revealing pants with a spare-tyre-generating waistband, writhes around in agony covering himself in clay for next door to an hour. Because this performance is both in the round and achingly boring, there is ample opportunity to study the audience most of whom are clearly entranced from the word go. I seem to be sat with a more cheering faction which includes two giggling students, and an upright decent sort who walks out after ten minutes without a hint of apology or regret.
Finally there is a few minutes of juggling which is an almost physical relief. The performer has some game and it is a pity he has not pursued the more democratic and joyful option of street performance. Indeed as we fade to black, there is a long silence and for a thrilling minute I think nobody is going to applaud, but it’s just confusion because the lights come on and everyone gamely claps. Each time I bring my hands together I feel like a little bit of my integrity is pounded to extinction.
To give him his due, he clearly experienced something powerful and I suspect this was the product of unintentionally hilarious and endless po-faced workshops; for enduring that alone the performer and technical team deserve credit. There’s also a grudging respect for a prank well played – the joke is emphatically on us, although I’m not sure many people, including those on stage understand it’s a joke. Of course, within its own terms it’s impossible to criticise: those who denounce this can be accused of intellectual sour-grapes, lacking the sophistication or sensitivity to appreciate something truly avant-garde. Those sniggering or wondering whether to get a pizza on the way back are the narrow-minded rabble who might as well have stayed at home and watched the X Factor. I know I wish I had. Like art galleries of blank canvases, or musical performances executed on vacuum cleaners, there is no communicable content here, nothing that requires talent, just a smattering of badly understood French philosophy and the implied pleasure that comes from being cleverer than the hoi polloi (and if you object to the definite article preceding ‘hoi’ then congratulations, you’re a paid up member of the club).
It’s fine albeit old hat to demand an audience construct its own meaning to your ill-thought-through work of art. It occurred to me during that long and icky hour that if you say the word ‘Mud’ in a Peter-Sellers’-Inspector-Clousseau-accent it sounds exactly like the French word for ‘shit’. But that’s about as a profound a sentiment as I’m capable and if that condemns me to the ranks of the philistine classes, I’m happy to join them. They’re far better company.