Reviews ManchesterNational Published 15 July 2019

Review: Maggie the Cat at Manchester International Festival

Maggie who?: James Varney writes on character, community and the ghost of Tennessee Williams in American choreographer Trajal Harrell’s new piece for MIF.

James Varney
Maggie the Cat at Manchester International Festival. Design, Trajal Harrell and Erik Flatmo; lighting design, Stéfane Perraud. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Maggie the Cat at Manchester International Festival. Design, Trajal Harrell and Erik Flatmo; lighting design, Stéfane Perraud. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Who’s Maggie? What’s a Maggie? Well.

Firstly, and on an aesthetic level, Maggie the Cat is a destruction of a certain kind of American image of domestic heat and neatness. It throws on rags as a roll of the eyes to a distinct type of night at the theatre – where we might watch a man with muscles shout in his best ‘Southern Drawl’ at a leading lady. Maggie the Cat is a put on and parody of the love for watching ‘actors’ play ‘characters’, and it gives no currency to ‘psychological realism.’

Tennessee Williams is a ghost at the back of my mind tonight. I don’t know Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but who needs to – I’m sure enough that Williams wrote hot plays (definitely plays) about men who were men and women who were women and people who were hot and tired with each other and sex like crawling and crying like retching. I imagine a house (often a house) in an ecstasy of impotence; Williams for me is wood beams and implicit property, respectability and fixed social form (of which of course everyone is writhing and filthy inside).

(I like ghosts.)

Of course tonight’s performance happens in the REd and GOld sincerity of the Dancehouse. Google Dancehouse Manchester. It’s one of those proper old classic theatre spaces it’s got those special rippling curtains and it isn’t obscenely large it’s neat and contained because it knows its damn means it fits a formal idea of the theAter. If we cast our minds back to this year’s Met Gala (theme ‘Camp’) we might remember a frustration at the ‘misunderstanding’ of it all. For a lot of us, it didn’t feel camp. Hard to put my finger on but maybe a lot of looks felt not ugly enough or not sincere enough in their ugliness, garishness, or just simply too straight-up clean and pretty.

In points 18 and 19 of her ‘Notes on Camp’ Susan Sontag suggests ‘Camp which knows itself to be Camp […] is usually less satisfying.’ and ‘The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.’ I think Williams understood this – I think this production understands this. Tennessee Williams’s characters live in a world of melodrama which believes itself to be sharp, serious. They are frivolous creatures convinced of their own height and weight, running from the idea they might be sweating, clumsy children.

And so Maggie the Cat leans on the stylistic markers of serious home décor and the absolute importance of a person’s (a character’s) social relationship to the collected proximal i n d i v i d u a l s. The company are introduced by Trajal Harrell and Stephanie Amurao one-by-one, by name, but also as ‘our help.’ I can only believe Harrell understands the stupidity of the ‘auteur’ who hangs parasitic on the labour of an unacknowledged company of ‘other’ professionals.

Our company strut and vogue, they tape sofa cushions to their bodies and wear them as if they were Comme Des Garcons. They wear towels, which slip, and slips which they hold on their chests as if they’re unsure what to do with them. Glamour is fickle and hypnosis only happens when we are willing. Harrell and Amurao use mics and the aesthetics are the archetypal ballroom scenes of Paris is Burning, which the red room helps. They are backed by slipping, overlapping dirty breaking bad mixed music. As if two people have plugged into the same aux cable and are trying to make it work. Here is ballroom culture as the parody of high culture.

But hmm, who is Maggie? Just a way of moving maybe. Only a character and a character might be anything eh. We can tear em out pick em apart n that. The set the stage the night is Maggie. Maggie’s not a slip of the towel any more than she’s a seat cushion or a temptress or a dancer; these ideas are just violences of gaze.

If Maggie is a (one) woman a temptress a character – if – then – then in whose interest is it that she can be defined as a single thing? Who’s using that power and what are they using it for?

And I’ve been reading some Queer feminism so you lucky sods can have an earful. Hah.

In her essay ‘Against Innocence’ (read it here) Jackie Wang writes ‘I see [the] rejection of collective forms of organizing, and unwillingness to think beyond the individual as the foundational political unit, as part of a historical shift from queer liberation to queer performativity that coincides with the advent of neoliberalism and the “Care of the Self”-style “politics” of choice).’ She references Maya Andrea Gonzalez’s notion of ‘The terrible community’: ‘a human agglomerate, not a group of comrades. The members of the terrible community encounter each other and aggregate together by accident more than by choice. They do not accompany one another, they do not know one another.’

Gonzalez’s terrible community is ‘an aggregate of monad-like singularities’ – the result of politics conceived around the notion of the individual and the belief that we are all, first and foremost, separate and distinct at the core. And this paralyses collective action, because before the movement can move it is obstructed by a myriad of bespoke hurdles with individualistic solutions (which the movement as a body cannot tackle).

For Maggie the Cat, the individual (the upholstery, the fashion, the act) is exploded, explored through the body of the company, ‘our help.’ Like, of course they all have names, but their essence and reason for being is as a body; all onstage are Maggie the Cat – the mise en scène is their joint movement through space, their shared perversion of fabric and noise. Maggie is not a source of social relations, but a space moved inside of. As an interpolated subject with her identity thrust upon her there is no ‘essential Maggie-ness’ – all that is needed is for us, an audience, to read Maggie onto someone (or a company, a performance) and they become her.

There is no essential self or character. Internal life is powerless.

My metaphor, from the haunted absent impression of Tennessee Williams, and through the distance of whatever America is, whatever contemporary dance is. My metaphor is to fear the neat and clean notion of a character. We do not have a character any more than the wind does. Empty air changes shape depending on what’s running through the aux cable. My metaphor, as Maggie does not have a ‘character’, as a company of individuals makes a show which can’t escape itself is. My metaphor is to think about the plastic way we group together.

I want so very much for a theatre audience not to be a ‘community […] together by accident more than by choice.’ I want so very much for the room and the people to matter. Lastly I think about the assertion that ‘Queer’ is not about orientations or identities. ‘Queer’ describes a structural relationship to power. Queer ‘communities’ may share things which are thrust upon them. Our commonality comes from the way we are crushed by the world. Who’s Maggie.

Maggie the Cat runs at The Dancehouse, Manchester, as part of MIF, until 14 July. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Maggie the Cat at Manchester International Festival Show Info


Choreography by Trajal Harrell

Cast includes Trajal Harrell, Stephanie Amurao, Helan Boyd Auerbach, Vânia Doutel Vaz, Rob Fordeyn, Christopher Matthews, Nasheeka Nedsreal, Perle Palombe, Songhay Toldon, Ondrej Vidlar, Tiran Normanson

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