Antonin Artaud is a difficult ou to follow.
Reviled and jeered in his time, beset by poverty, addiction, and manic depression, his angry railing at the theatre of his time won him few friends.
Through a series of essays such as the Theatre Of Cruelty, the Theatre And Its Double and The Theatre And The Plague, he proposed stripping away the barriers between performer and audience, as flaying exposes the interior body to the external world.
His Cruelty exhorted a rigour and discipline that would see the audience experiencing the extremity of emotions invoked by his work rather than passively observing their depiction.
Castigating text as repeatable by nature and therefore lacking in immediacy, seeking to abolish the proscenium arch in favour of an arena in which spectators and performers are flung into the same space, the director was to be the supreme orchestrator of unrepeatable gestures that would conjure life within actors and audience alike.
This didn’t go down well with the intellectuals of early 1930s Paris. It was essentially an attack on not only the literary establishment but resembled a call to anarchy, a dissembling of the civilised structure. This was emphasised in The Theatre And The Plague in which Artaud comes close to deifying the “hidden disorder” which led to a “complete crisis after which nothing remains but death or an extreme purification”¹. He was attracted to the situational extreme where death or healing were the only options.
This threat, combined with his mental instability and the desperation poverty breeds, pissed many people off and he was never able to find the backers to finance an uncompromised version of his manifesto. Nonetheless, he spawned contemporary theatre; he was at the vanguard of the colossal clash between word and image, body and intellect, which has been assimilated into the theatre lexicon of now. But we know better than to dive headlong into Artaud’s maelstrom. Distance allows digestion; we tread carefully, borrow bits and pieces. Only Butoh perhaps embodies Artaud’s philosophy and even there it is not by design.
Yet Les Cenci steps boldly into this bedlam, this arena of do or die. “Physically driven”², deviating from “the primacy of the spoken word”², theoretically underpinned by Artaud’s work, it dares us to demand of it complete success or utter failure. Almost, but not quite, it creates a half-concealed escape hatch by also being a “semi-biographical dramatisation”² of his life. Even in the attempt to bring life to his manifesto – now with technology the lack of which crippled Artaud’s vision – director Gopala Davies seems to shrink from throwing himself into the gladiatorial arena Artaud demanded. It’s hard to blame him and I’m similarly unwilling to be forced into a dichotomy where a thumbs up or thumbs down is the only critical option.
For one thing, Gopala Davies is more a film than a theatre director, and it shows. It has been noted that Artaud’s vision of the complete experience could only have been realised with the kinds of technology we have now. Davies uses this technology to good effect but leans heavily towards imagery at the expense of including the physical performance Artaud had to rely on.
Right from the start there is direct aesthetic reference to Butoh. All four male performers, three of whom dress their naked companion, are not only whitewashed in reference to Butoh, their costumes are copies of those worn by Sankai Juku in Unetsu, right down to the red tipped fingers. But the similarity to Butoh and its parallel embodiment of Artaud’s Theatre Of Cruelty ends there. Their movement is barely an echo of the embodiment we seek. Where we seek the supernatural we find simply the unnatural, the white boytjie accent doing little to transport us into an ethereal world and thus Butoh becomes merely one of many signifiers of Artaud to come.
The set design of scattered black and white drawings on innumerable A4 sheets running through the venue from entrance to upstage is a seductive nod towards the concept of the shattered proscenium arch but does not entirely engage with the destruction of theatrical space. Fiona Ramsay’s presence as Artaud himself as well as seemingly the embodiment of tortured Beatrice in Artaud’s flawed Les Cenci, haunting the space between audience and stage for most of the play is a similar device which indicates but does not encompass Artaud’s vision.
Where Davies has better success is in his audio visual projections. We are affected, we are shocked and shifted by sudden, violent noise and at times assaulted by images, the combination of which goes some way to recreating the immediacy Artaud sought. Despite their value, their wedding with the body is an impotent union. Ultimately, they remain images, representation of the blood, bile and phlegm, the humors Artaud wished to stir.
Cleverly, the Marx Brothers, who inspired Artaud to muse on the ability of laughter to rupture the prosaic and incorporate violence in the everyday, are contained in intermittently inserted slapstick documentary interludes.
The ability of laughter to tear through reality is deftly invoked by projected interruption of a reading of Artaud’s manifesto. The performer is mocked by an image, asked if he really believes his words hold any power, the screened spectator notes how bored we the audience are and descends into hysterical laughter. This is also a lost opportunity, the manifesto read in subdued tone, the language of the body contained, inner. Yet when Artuad read his Theatre Of The Plague at the Sorbonne in 1933, he allied its delivery to his own approach.
Anaïs Nin wrote that his face was “contorted with anguish, one could see the perspiration dampening his hair. His eyes dilated, his muscles became cramped, his fingers struggled to retain their flexibility. He made one feel the parched and burning throat, the pain, the fever, the fire in the guts. He was in agony. He was screaming. He was delirious…”
At first people were taken aback. They gasped, expressed shock, which soon turned to laughter. Artaud was jeered, people left, banging the door behind them, she wrote. And so in this Les Cenci once again the image of the jeering spectator takes precedent over the muted physical performance. This inability to bring the body to the level of the image is this work’s main failure, it is a marriage unconsummated.
Only Ramsay, when she finally ascends the stage, attempts to breaks the domination of imagery to provide a semblence of the cruelty we seek, her figure a towering edifice of power as her monologue of crucifixion and death rolls over us, her words drawing us to her as if we are being hauled in with bloody sinews. But brave as it is, it is fellatio to the savage penetration we seek, leaving the work an affecting simulcra. A flickering pixelation of porn that has us stimulated at a remove rather than rolling in the promiscuous jism of Artaud’s promise.
Les Cenci is performed tonight at 20h00 and twice tomorrow. I suggest you do try see it. Programme notes and bookings here.
¹ Quotes taken from The Anatomy of Cruelty – Antonin Artaud: life and works by Stephen Barber.
² Quotes taken from notes on Les Cenci in the National Arts Festival programme.
— Steve Kretzmann