The title of this piece, Expendable Chapters, is borrowed from the 1963 novel Hopscotch by the Argentinian author, Julio Cortázar. The cast sheet text alludes to the connection—‘the title is borrowed from Cortasar’—but with no further explanation provided, the connection is meaningless to one not already familiar with Cortázar’s work. Hopscotch, I later discover, is a stream-of-consciousness novel that can be read in different sequences of chapters. One of these chapters is the so-called ‘Expendable Chapter’ which, although it provides answers to certain questions raised elsewhere in the book, is not necessarily essential to the comprehensibility of the plot.
When the lights come up, four young actors are sitting around a rectangular table, singing a song whose lines include, ‘I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe’. They begin speaking, all in Greek, with more or less comprehensible English surtitles projected onto a screen behind. One can vaguely grasp the sense that we’re being told a story, or a series of stories, told and retold out of sequence in an any number of different permutations. But the complete lack of a discernible plot or characters means it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that we’re watching the foursome simply test out an experimental exercise.
Having said that, the fact that this feels more like a self-conscious exercise in experimental theatre making rather than a fully-formed work is not necessarily a death sentence. Truthfully, there’s something deeply interesting in not having any idea what in the hell is going on, that unsettled feeling which accompanies a total inability to comprehend. Theatre is so often concerned with the privileged place of language and, although I adore the sound of Greek, my lack of ability to understand what I suspect, I hope, is a careful attention to the role of language in this out-of-sequence narration leaves me feeling both frustrated and intrigued.
A friend researches the idea of otherness and ‘foreignization’ in theatrical translation and, sat here in the dark, grasping hopelessly at meaning, I’m reminded of her work. Through accident or design, in combining the otherness of spoken Greek with sometimes clumsy English translations (in a segment that seems to be about a childhood romance, for example, one of the lines reads, ‘notwithstanding the culture of the time’), Expendable Chapters foregrounds a keen sense of otherness.
After the show, I’m unmoored. I have no idea what that was about. I have no idea what to write. I want clarity. I want meaning. I want to know what the piece was actually about. But then, I start to think, why do I really need to know what it was about? Curiosity to know wins out and I find an interview with the company online. It’s an interesting interview. They discuss the nature of the play’s text, explaining that it’s comprised of rearrangements and readings of pre-existing texts, presumably Cortázar, but also the Greek writer & blogger Thanos Kappas. The problem is that I have no idea who the latter is and no familiarity with the former.
On reflection, despite feeling downright bewildered by this production as a whole, many of its component parts seem to be the result of intelligent, thoughtful decision making. The stream-of-consciousness, non-sequential narrative. The fact that it’s performed in Greek. However, with experimental theatre, particularly when the experimental component is so driven by language, the company must do a much better job of preparing its audience. It’s such a small thing, but managing the expectations of the audience going into an experimental non-narrative production is crucial.
If the script is built on repurposing texts as-found, give us at least the names of those authors, tell us why you’ve chosen those works. Anchor us to something. By way of comparison, Expendable Chapters called to mind Forced Entertainment’s Speak Bitterness. But Forced Entertainment’s audiences are well prepared. A framework is outlined in advance so that the confessional texts have meaning beyond an endless stream of unrelated sentences. This is a crucial reminder that the script is not always the theatre-makers most important piece of writing. Often the framing of a work—through descriptive blurbs or cast sheet texts–can be just as critical to success.
Expendable Chapters is on until 18 August 2018 at Greenside at Infirmary Street. Click here for more details.