Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, as outlined in his 1933 book of essays Theatre and its Double, called for theatre to break away from its traditionally western notions of narrative-led action. In its place, Artaud advocated for a theatre orchestrated around affective experience, where the arousal of senses and bodily feeling take precedence over layers of cognitive engagement. Artaud’s theatre was immediate and shocking, conceived of as a means to awake its audience from literary-minded complacency.
It is with these notions in mind that Jian Yi crawls onto the stage at Glasgow’s CCA to present Magic Theatre – [scenes from the unconscious], a fusion of Butoh and new media that seeks to explore our shared unconscious human desires, the human psyche and the nature of heartbreak, framed within a Queer and East Asian lens. In more prosaic terms, the work is a one-person performance presented in end-on style to a seated audience, designed as a sensory experience communicated through movement, projection, sound, a dancing body, a dress and a plastic bottle of honey.
There’s much to admire in Magic Theatre, with its hypnotic visual complexity and Jian Yi’s movement, which is by turns loving and pained, smooth and jagged. The stage is beautifully designed, both aesthetically rich and dramaturgically functional. An abstract space, presumably to represent the interior of the unconscious mind, it is strewn with a mound of televisions, a mannequin, a mirror, an armchair and a section of brick wall. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s complex and fun to look at, with a strong sense of interplay between the sequencing of performance material and the objects onstage. Magic Theatre flows together as Jian Yi moves about the space, seeming to come across objects by an unseen grand design, as if stumbled upon in a dream. Yet it is the scale of the space, both its depth and height, that give it an otherworldly quality. The objects above, as well as two hanging fabrics, serve to frame the space in different ways, gesturing to the full range of its height and depth. The results create strikingly seductive moments. This interplay between near and far, body and space, leads to the most memorable and exhilarating moment of the work (but more on that later).
Magic Theatre is a confident piece of work which is boldly presented and performed, which makes significant claims about what type of work it is and what theatre could (or should) be like. Jian Yi, both in the work itself and in the discourse that they’ve created surrounding it, sets a high bar which ultimately the work fails to meet. Rather than excavate the depths of the unconscious psyche, Magic Theatre skirts briefly across its surfaces, landing momentarily on our collective longings to be reborn, to make life stop, to throw tantrums and form self and other-destructive overdependent or co-dependent attachments. This incredibly wide scope leads to an ultimately unsatisfying experience, which never digs in one spot long enough to unearth the gold it seeks, where the emotions unearthed are never given room to breathe, alter, change – as emotions are want to do. Magic Theatre offers less intellectual or emotional insight into its subject matter than it seems to intend, and certainly less than the marketing copy such as ‘schizo-psychotic audio-visual experience’ aspires to.
Within all the clutter and obfuscation of Jian Yi’s Magic Theatre sits an outstanding moment of exhilaration and fear-induced defecation. They take off their dress and pour a bottle of honey over themselves. Then after rolling about a bit, they stagger to the back of the space, half blinded with sticky faux embryonic fluid. Standing far away, framed within the magnificent height of everything, they seduce me; I lean forward, itching to be close, to know, understand. Blood flows from the ceiling. I’m midway through thinking “what the fuck does that mean?” when Jian Yi turns and runs at the audience, screaming and waving arms in the air. Meanwhile the lights violently strobe. It must have lasted about three seconds, but it was terrifying – and I absolutely shat myself.
Schizo-psychotic or not, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Magic Theatre – [scenes from the unconscious] was at the CCA, Glasgow, from 21-22 November. More info here.