There are many contemporary art-works, whether theatre or visual art, that are more interesting as ideas than they are in the execution. (Tate Modern is full of them.) And then there are pieces that are aware of this very disjunction and take an interest in it, trying to unpick how the idea becomes something else when it’s materialized or dramatized.
Playwright and director Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero is one such piece. It arrives at the Dublin Theatre Festival garlanded by the likes of Ben Brantley of the New York Times, and Maxwell’s style and method are very much to the fore: deliberately flat, basic, minimalistic, as pared-back in delivery as in physical and verbal expression. Maxwell’s experimental theatre is a challenge, especially for an Irish theatre audience, with a strong narrative dramatic tradition where language is king and realism the preferred mode. For my own part, I was underwhelmed by the piece, though find myself still reflecting on its principal idea.
The production opens with one actor delivering a lyrical reflection on the sky, shared and mysterious, before jolting us down to earth with a long and minute description of the urban landscape of a small American town, right down to the last predictable chain-store and hokey gift shop. ‘Upon your imaginary forces work’, Shakespeare’s Henry V’s Chorus whispered in my ear. And strangely enough, the deliberately flat tone in which this introduction is delivered became rather moving, expectancy and uncertainty hanging on every word as the direction of the piece remained to be revealed.
In fact, as it turned out, we would encounter more of the same but also less of the same: more solitary actors, adding only a hefty dose of earnestness to these bare expositions, but also less lyricism, less richness in the language and lines. Nor is there much elucidation of this mundane world to be gained from the bare set, once we have descended from the heavens: twelve schoolroom chairs ranged in a line at the back, the vast space in front of them lit variously by harsh greens and reds. Instead, actor by actor, we are treated to a provocative mixture of song, spoken word and the barest of formal movements, centred around a young everyman hero searching for his father.
That interesting idea I mentioned? Like its counterparts in Tate Modern, it’s spelled out in the title: the idea of a ‘neutral’ hero, in both form and substance. In an interview with Totally Dublin this week, Maxwell describes how Neutral Hero swerves away from the paradigms and purposes of mainstream hero-narratives such as those of Hollywood blockbusters. ‘I think we come as close as we can within our own limitations to being pure form and as far from a moral as possible.’
If this is epic without moralising, heroes without their wonted heroism, it is also theatre without ‘theatre’ as those ‘limitations’, too, are brought to our attention. As Maxwell himself acknowledges, the ideal of a neutral hero becomes impossible once casting, rehearsals, actors – bodies – join the process of realizing his theatrical vision. And in many ways, the way that Maxwell’s piece comes to terms with this, satisfies itself with the nuances and helpless meaning-making of body, of gesture, of bearing, is the most appealing element of Neutral Hero. Out of the immediacy of the performance, the actors’ individual persons are asserted first as persons rather than first as actors.
But something else interests Maxwell too: Neutral Hero makes viewers work a little harder, take more responsibility for the process by which the piece makes meaning: faced with stilled bodies and persons that refuse to play the game of ‘acting’, the audience are thrown into the need to read off social and political identity, to grasp for mythic paradigms and narrative intertexts or anything that will suffuse the bare movements and prosaic lines with interest. (That doesn’t mean that the extra effort will prove satisfying, however.) And the intertexts, in fact, are far from neutral or elusive, at least for the hero’s narrative trajectory in the piece: he clearly re-plays Homer’s Telemachus in search of his father and accosted by monsters and goddesses on his wandering route until the final reunion.
I will confess that I was far from neutral about the songs interspersed throughout: I found them nauseating and faux-naïve, giving the cast an aura of a failed folk-band, all beards and banjos, ukey and kooky. Far from reinforcing the formal experiment, these overschooled moments made me irritated, and much less willing to keep ‘piec[ing] out [its] imperfections’ with my thoughts. And the idea of the piece quickly grew wearing, I found. It may seem a little unfair to criticize Neutral Hero for its effect of leaving one cold, for the unintentional hilarity of the deadpan delivery and leaden script, when the condition of affectlessness is something to which it aspires. But as a theatrical experience, for good or ill, it will leave you wanting more.
Read the Exeunt interview with Richard Maxwell.