Combining music, movement and, eventually, a self-generated mudbath, this hour-long piece of ritualistic theatre is like a Taiwanese indigenous people’s nature-conscious homage to Grotowski. When it was over I didn’t necessarily know what to ‘do’ with the experience, but felt I ‘got it’ instinctively anyway – meaning I believe I was in tune with the performance as a strange and compelling ceremony, and as a vehicle for sensations both subtle and strong and even somehow spiritual. It was therefore perhaps not so strange after all, given how much it engaged and absorbed my curiosity and senses.
When we enter Summerhall’s Old Lab the cast (composed of male and female, the young and the old) of this Langasan Theatre production is already in place round a central area anchored by rumpled paper on black plastic. With downcast eyes they’re waiting, but most likely not for anything as prosaic as the performance to begin. Something larger is going on here. There’s a quality of stillness and readiness in their bodies that suggests they have perhaps collectively tapped into some mysterious wellspring of vital energy. The tone of quiet expectation is almost palpable.
What ensues is a series of episodes or, possibly, stages on a journey. An old man speaks, swigging from a bottle and then spray-spitting the liquid onto a large leaf that he uses to fan the space. It’s a blessing, and maybe a summoning too. He and a woman make twanging, rhythmic music by plucking rubber bands positioned in their mouths. Next a stout, bare-chested fellow with feathers sticking up from his hair and a weapon at his waist rises from the sidelines, and proceeds to vocalise in a vibrating rasp that seems torn and brought up from his guts. He’s a soul man in the act of testifying, and when he finished I felt like whooping in response. Instead my attention was drawn to a thin, chalk-white woman who, accompanied by live throat singing and drumming, slips onto the stage and spills over both it and herself black and red paint. She’s subsequently rolled up and carried off. The sound of a small but piercingly resonant hand bell cleanses the air. Another woman materialises with a crown spouting golden grain. She sets it down and writhes with contained abandon to an ancient yet funky percussive groove.
The rest now seems like a kind of half-dream. There’s a creature encased in fabric, plus some round mirrors, a large fragment of a god-like clay head and, above all, the distribution of mud of a pale, milky consistency. The performers slather themselves with the stuff, rolling round and over each other. It’s hardly surprising that the mood waxes more than somewhat Bacchanalian, but I also couldn’t help thinking of Woodstock (a benchmark of my childhood) and Glastonbury or, dipping further back in time to the land of guilty pleasures, Ann-Margret (Google her) as a human paintbrush in a wild, wonderfully trashy dance scene tucked into a smutty 1966 sex comedy called The Swinger. (I’m in no way making parallels between Misa-Lisin and a Hollywood star vehicle but, rather, merely establishing a personal pop culture reference point.)
Eventually the rubber band players, soiled like the others, don masks and those reflective surfaces get sullied too in what plays out like a mass anointing but only of a small group in an intimate setting. I’m reminded now of what Marlene Dietrich, got up as a gypsy of gimlet-eyed, fag-at-the-lips glamour, says to the bloated, grizzled Orson Wells in Touch of Evil: ‘Honey, you’re a mess.’ Langasan’s carefully calibrated, concentrated messiness seemed like my reward, although I might be hard-pressed to say for what. Maybe living through another season, another day, or another unusually well-spent hour on the Fringe.