Annegret: A post-structuralist walks into a theatre, picks up the flyer for Ridiculusmus’ new piece, studies it and then leaves again. He only watches plays by dead authors.
Seriously though, can we talk meta? Your review mentions “meta-theatrical narrative and structure”, “feedback loops” and “meta-layers”? I think Catherine Love had a point in her look at the piece on how clever-clever can a play be without alienating the audience. I can picture someone being utterly bewildered and disappointed. I mean, enough already with the Punchdrunk jokes.
Tim: Meta is always better. I like the bewildering effect of being faced with a play that gets a bit beyond itself, a bit beyond me. Ridiculusmus really nailed it here. I agree that it could be alienating – he performance mentioned at least two other shows that are on at Battersea Arts Centre at the moment, as well as Punchdrunk etc. Still, I got the jokes, I enjoyed it.
Annegret: I like metatextual ponderings as much as the next critic but this kind of thing is why people got cross with Derrida’s idea around text and authorship. Eroding these fundamentals is alienating. Not that I didn’t enjoy it mightily but I do wonder what the ceiling is for rolling commentary and narrative into one big fur ball and vomiting it out in front of the audience?
Tim: Honestly, the reason I focused on the show’s meta-narratival aspect is because I didn’t pick up on the political points. Your review says the show is ‘surprisingly firm in its moral stance on role of the artist in the gentrification
process’. I totally missed that. Billy Barrett’s brilliant review is almost entirely about that theme. He says Ridiculusmus (deliberately) portray themselves as a company “wilfully ignorant of the damage wrought by its own practice”, that art is a cause of gentrification’ (a word that you and Catherine Love both use) as much as it wants to be the effect. I liked the flash of its endlessly peeling structure and missed the deeper points.
Annegret: I’m not sure I agree that you missed the point. Maybe there is just not much left to chuck in the pan to fry when you’re done with the peeling?
Tim: Even if it hit the theatrical in-jokes a bit too hard, it was still clever-clever. Have you seen that Doctor Who episode where Clara jumps into the Doctor’s timeline and spews herself into various episodes across his many incarnations? World Mouse Plague was like that. The performers play different characters in each little scene, commenting on it as they do, but in each scene is the common element, the Clara factor, that they are always dressed as mice. And they almost always refer to being dressed as mice.
Annegret: I’m really glad of that analogy because not only have I seen that episode I also think it illustrates my problem with the piece. You know how the “Impossible Girl” Clara is nothing more than a mystery to the Doctor? Something that needs solving? We don’t really care for her as a character. She’s just there, doing all this awesome timeline jumping stuff and baking soufflés but she doesn’t have a personality of her own. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy Scot here but I’m really wondering what this piece is trying to do apart from the layering? It encodes its message (and I use that word with a curled upper lip) so heavily that it kind of betrays whatever commitment it makes to social commentary. I still wouldn’t go so far to say that it only leaves me with “spiteful laughter” as Larry Bartleet states in his review Broadway Baby when the show was up in Edinburgh. I would argue the satire doesn’t sting enough.
Tim: But I think that the substance is there. That substance comes partly from the cleverness of the form (the layered
structure, the sketch-like presentation), and partly from the variety of the content, what those sketches are actually trying to say. Which, I think, is some kind of typical Doctor Who ending about being nice to each other and how brilliant the human spirit is etc…
Annegret: I’m not saying that there was no human drama in The World Mouse Plague and I’m biting back the inverted commas around the word human here because these mice, man, they were literally running for their life. As an allegory when it wasn’t all jokey it was actually quite powerful. Maybe I’m just contradicting myself here or the play is both about these themes and at the same time isn’t. Insert an idiotic Schrödinger’s cat remark here.
Tim: It’s exactly as you say there’s human drama in there, but it’s cloaked in silliness. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The drama that these ‘mice’ face is very human, played out in varying degrees of metaphor: Mrs Runacres-Watt’s eviction is a real life example, but when the mice nibble at the poisoned cake and die (you can imagine River Song crooning the word ‘spoilers’ here) that’s the same narrative – being fucked over by someone else’s cruelty/insensitivity – in a more metaphorical form.
Annegret: The spoilery scene is actually the most powerful for me. Not because of the tragic height but because the
surprisingly focused lighting and the suddenly swelling, soppy music which hadn’t been used in the piece before. The way it was done was an obvious comment on traditional theatre conventions and on how the tools of theatre are regularly used to manipulate audience emotions. It was deeply affecting, quite clearly marking me as an immersed audience member, but in the same moment I was also aware what was being done to me. But let’s leave Brecht in peace, shall we?
Tim: Yeah, definitely leave Brecht in peace! What WMP shows is that something as simple as a mouse costume can be hugely multivalent and deeply symbolic. As a symbol, not to get too Barthesian about this, mice represent an odd combination of ‘the oppressed’, of a cartoonish silliness, and of a sense of pluckiness. Mickey Mouse was, basically, the first animation. Then, as you mention in your review, comes Tom and Jerry. And Dangermouse, Pinky and the Brain, Rastamouse. All these little mice are always running for their lives, and they are always fighting back. Some of that embedded symbolism must have seeped through in my interpretation of the piece and in my attempt to understand what the mice costumes were about.
Annegret: Actually no, let’s get Barthesian about it! We have come this far. The whole thing seems to me then as with so many good pop culture products (see The Simpsons) a matter of how much effort you put into decoding it. Barthes distinguishes between readerly (easy to understand) and writerly texts (hard to understand you have to “write” the meaning yourself). With texts he means any cultural offering that can be read, so not just books.
And the success of that effort is always determined by how much you bring to it. You call that process “seeping through”, I’d call that being a critic who doesn’t just say “I didn’t get it therefore it must be rubbish”. If only I had watched Dangermouse then it all would have made more sense. I’m not trying to be flippant here by the way. You’re basically saying there’s a whole level that works as incitement to fight back against the things that oppress us. That’s quite spectacular. And it’s definitely in there but only if you can access the Mouse reference frame you opened up. So, what are you seeing next?