To read or not to read the programme notes: impartiality is the question.
Often I choose not to read them. At other times, in the rush of getting from one venue to another in an unfamiliar city armed with a pre-determined schedule when I’m really focussed on is getting to the right place at the right time, I don’t even know the name of the show.
For the most part, going in blind works to the benefit of the performance. With no idea what I’m about to see, and often with no background knowledge of the theatremakers and performers, the work is as unsullied as it can possibly be by predetermined ideas.
Admittedly, sometimes prior research is required to obtain the full benefit of a play, but this generally applies to work staged during ‘normal’ time that is a reworking of existing text or deliberately engages with particular pre-existing traditions which it hopefully moves into new territory.
Going in blind is a good formula at the fringe though, fringe being a space (isn’t space such a wonderfully flexible word?) for exploration of the new and innovative. Not that works on the fringe can’t deliberately mine intellectual tradition or text, but accessibility is an unspoken pre-requisite. Actually, I argue all art must be accessible at some level. There needs to be an open door through which to enter the rabbit hole but let me put that trail of thought aside on the pile of ‘essays to be written’ because the aim here is to discuss a play, not art as a field of endeavour and enquiry.
Imaginary Anthropologies. That is the play. And I’m chuffed I was too absorbed in finding my way to a previously unvisited part of Amsterdam, and taking note of the late spring light, and bridges lifting for barges, and what language the small knots of tourists I passed were talking, and trying to imitate the graceful way the Dutch flow along on their bicycles, to have gathered any information whatsoever about the performance I was to witness.
So when tall, dark and expressive Gabriel Dharmoo stood under a spot stage right and strangely twitched and twisted with an unhurried grace while producing an atonal humming and whining non-melody not dissimilar to the muezzin’s call to prayer, I was unsure what to make of it. It did not seem to be an appeal to a generous view of Islam, especially when the pitch began resembling a noisome mosquito, and yet if failed awfully as either imitation or parody.
Then with occasional video footage of distinguished academics pronouncing on the sophistication of various primitive tribes’ singing traditions and vocal anachronisms, Dharmoo ran through a gamut of unmelodic and disharmonious sounds accompanied by the physical movement and dances the act of creating such sounds often required. At one stage he had us creating a substratal soundtrack upon which he, entering into trance, sang unearthly arias.
I grew increasingly angry with him as he appeared to be appropriating other cultures as means to try elicit humour for his own behalf.
And then, through imperceptible inflection, as slowly and gently as a northern European dawn, what he was actually doing started becoming apparent. As my suspicion gained strength I began to realise the brilliance of the show, which Gabriel gradually illuminated until it shone bright as a solstice noon.
Up until yesterday, I would have argued subtle satire was not possible. Now, should the question ever arise in the course of dinner table conversation, Imaginary Anthropologies would be a very useful illustration. And besides the joy of watching a revelatory performance, having it up your sleeve as potential lubricant for intellectual discussion offers a utility few artistic products possess.
Programme notes (don’t read them) and booking for Imaginary Anthropologies here.
*This post has been edited. It stated the show was conceptualised by Menad Kesraaoui, which Dharmoo has clarified is not the case. Kesraaoui was director of photography. The show was conceptualised by Dharmoo.