Simon Vincenzi’s latest work is a bit of a paradox: it’s simultaneously immersive and distancing.
Luxuriant and King Real Against The Guidelines are openly isolating and self-sufficient – the first shoves the audience around, as performers trample over them, the other relies on a bizarre auto-translation of ‘Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy’, that gets rid of any immediately resonant meanings in the text. Both are cyclical and determinedly flat, tied up in a impenetrable, firm, but painstakingly simple structure, demanding an interaction that challenges the preconception of what it is the audience should do – in classical theatre and live art alike. There’s absolutely no room for either sitting quietly in your designated chair or accepting the kind invitation to take part in a designated way. Instead the invitation extended to the audience is to find their own way of co-existing within the catatonic, industrial universe that surrounds them, or accept defeat and leave.
Luxuriant is perhaps more openly aggressive, replacing the short introduction of a staged snuff(ish) film with a long sequence in which all performers, except for the single female, get off stage and start moving hypnotically around the auditorium in trance, accompanied by perpetual machinery sounds. The soundtrack and performers, those humming around and the one saying something important but completely dis-articulated from the stage, are stuck in a perpetual loop. What Vincenzi offers instead of linearity is a long line of scattered symbols to find and interpret. Hidden in a corner is the representative of the lowest level piracy-circle, ripping file after file, surrounded by empty coffee cups and coke bottles; on entrance random audience members are treated to a body search; flyers and occasional projections advertise the next big thing – an ambiguous but hyped project. Everything Luxuriant delivers belongs to a dilapidated world where, much like cockroaches after a nuclear attack, it’s only bottom of the pile dwellers and mutated humans that remain.
There’s reason to believe Luxuriant is perhaps alluding to the economic collapse of the first world. The cast is credited as ‘Company Mabuse’, referring to the master hypnotist, criminal boss and general super villain of early 20th century German novels and films, while the whole piece is intended to be a reconstruction of Gold Diggers of 1933 – a musical about a super-musical made in the midst of the great depression. More than just nodding in the general direction of western monetary issues, Luxuriant also opens up the grand question of the role theatre can play in turbulent times. Set in the elegant but old fashioned People’s Palace, made to look like it’s been overtaken by a mob, this performance, once all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, might actually offer a narrative: that of a mega hit, produced by a mega villain and performed by his hypnotised followers – the mindlessness of the creative team might explain for the lack of content, but the marketing campaign looks promising.
Deconstructing theatre is however undoubtedly the center of attention of the aptly named King Real Against The Guidelines, the last piece in Vincenzi’s Operation Infinity series. This performance seems to have nailed down each and every element in traditional theatre’s backbone – only to then smash it with a hammer and glue the pieces back together; the result is a performative equivalent of Mona Lisa with a moustache. Shakespeare’s glorified play, numbed down for decades by productions that ‘let the text speak, even when it includes obscure references to Renaissance puns no one on or off stage understands, has been processed by an auto translator. Blank verse and poetry are demolished, and so are the quotes everyone picked up in school – instead what’s left is the empty shell of thee-s and thy-s rolled up into a computer generated syntax. Spoken by a gentle female voice that exemplifies RP – received pronunciation, where all the intonation comes from punctuation rather than meaning – the recorded text serves up distinct remnants of ‘Shakespearean air’, rather than Shakespeare. In other words, there’s a lot of grace, elegance, appreciation and utmost respect, enough for the casual theatre goer to disregard the lack of any discernible intent.
Trupe Mabuse makes another appearance, bringing their established mellowness with them; in line with the traditional, well mannered stagings of King Lear, they come on stage to lip-sync the text in an appropriate pose of acting out important stuff. Nested in Toynbee Hall, another red-velvet theatre decorated with bin bags, King Real waits patiently, over three hours, for the audience to make a move: they are invited to come and go as they please, and insiders are infiltrated into the masses to add an extra bit of provocation. Some of them move around trying to find the best seat, while the others stoically stand in the back rows, dressed in tuxedos – together they are an open invitation to find a new way to be an audience member, one that might include protest, responsibility, and most of all – action.
The most striking thing about Vincenzi’s work is the balance it finds between being political and universal. Looking back to historical cultural artifacts (of lower and higher tiers), then uncovering and presenting how modern day interprets them, Vincenzi manages to look behind the attractiveness of headlines, into the less appealing, but more relevant and substantial mechanisms that bring about theatre that doesn’t even attempt to communicate with its audience, widespread lack of concern for art in austerity (or in general), cultural commodification, and most of all the general auto-pilot mode in which we all might be trying to navigate those circumstances in. Luxuriant and King Real more than deserve five stars – if only it wasn’t for the fact that kind of traditional, commercially led judgement would so obviously clash with all the thinking behind them.