Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cageling - Curtain Call review

Cageling is one of those productions that blurs the lines. Where does performance art begin? End? When does it cease to be a visual art installation? At what point does theatre take over? Let’s not go there. It doesn’t really matter. It is what it is. Which is something very arresting. It comes with the guiding catchphrase, ‘to be born a woman is the worst punishment’, and is veritably bursting with the most powerful imagery along those lines. It’s about oppression of women; by men, of course, but also other women, such as mothers. It is, according to The Rabble, its producers, a ‘reimagining’ of Federico Garcia Lorca’s, The House Of Bernarda Alba; albeit, for mine, a rather abstracted and liberally poetically licenced one, that comes reasonably hot on the heels of the success of ‘Salome: In Cogito Volume III’; not to mention ‘Corvus’.

To be frank, pretensions of reference to classic works, while typically, I suspect, a gambit to legitimise new and adventurous work, are too often tedious and can prevent it standing on its own merits, which might well be preferable. Here endeth the editorial. Or maybe not.

Suffice to say
Cageling is a reimagining in the way the bible is a reimagining of the word of God: it might be inspired, divinely or otherwise, by Lorca’s text, but that’s around about it, I’d suggest. In any case, as with any debate about what constitutes theatre, it’s of dubious consequence. Whether Lorca is an ‘undercurrent’, or his text has been ’smashed’ is of no relevance to the novice viewer. There are those, probably, who’ll walk in and out of this production without ever knowing about the Lorca references, or even who Lorca is, when he’s at home, in or around Granada. (Or was: he died pre-WW2, aged only 38.) Few will recognise Rosetti’s poem, or Ovid’s tale. We’re also told the piece is informed by Lorca’s essay on duende. Duende being a quintessentially Spanish concept, perhaps best embodied in, say, flamenco. It is, as best I can describe it, the proverbial dark night of the soul, embodied in music, whether this ‘music’ be sung, spoken, or otherwise impressed. The Cageling certainly exemplifies this sensibility, by dint, perhaps of the directors’ self-confessed obsession with gothica.

But, again, it’s not necessary we know, which is the folly of this background contextualisation. It’s a bit, or a lot, like curatorial notes, at an exhibition: one can have the purity, if you will, of one’s interpretation prejudiced or dictated by such; or eschew them, in deference to one’s own intellectual and aesthetic capacities. Where I do give credit to The Rabble and Cageling, in this respect, is is serving to open an old debate. Perhaps wound is a better word.

We walk into the capacious Bay 20 of CarriageWorks. Towards the back of the space is a box, a room, constructed of blonde timber, with a glass front. Inside are five performers, dressed in funereal robes; faces obscured by veils. (Is there an intentional, or accidental, allusion to oppression via the hijab, or burqa?!) They move very little, if at all. We hear a clanging cacophony of cymbal, chime and bell-like sounds. It’s slightly unnerving. This soundscape, by composer Matt Davis (who prefers to be known, Bond-like, as M, apparently) is one of the most engrossing and cohesives aspects of the work.

Not a lot happens, for quite a while. But it soon launches into a “surreal nightmare”. “Four daughters trapped by their mother’s rage; at once grotesque and sublime; a piece of visual theatre that explores repression, monsters, sexuality and the feminine.” That’s how it describes itself, and it’s about all you need to know and as near as you’re going to get to articulating this haunting, tormenting, dark, abstracted work. It has to be seen, to be believed and appreciated. But there are things you’re not likely to see, even given abnormally heightened acuity in your mind’s eye.

It is, for example, supposedly set on an outback property that has been ravaged by fire, where Alba rules the charred roost. Yet there’s no way of discerning this and it seems immaterial. Why apply a narrative idea that isn’t clearly present in the work itself? It’s just annoying. And there are many other ostensibly invisible, undetectable narrative assertions. Please, cease and desist and just us show us the work.

Yet some things are clear. Crystal. Alba (Daniel Schlusser) isn’t just a mother, she’s a motherfucker. Consequently, her daughters (Amelia, played by Jayne Tuttle; Magadalena, by Dana Miltins; Angustias, by Mary Helen Sassman and Adela, by Pier Carthew) are subject to arbitrary beatings and other cruel abuses, are seriously, and variously, fucked-up. Angustias wears her rebelliousness and individuality on her sleeve; well, chin (a beard). Adela has lapsed into some sort of pseudo-poetic psychosis. Magdalena seems to have developed rather canine and incestuous sexual impulses, finding release in friction with her sisters’ bodies. Whatever turns you on, I s’pose.

But all jokes aside (don’t get the idea it’s humourless, though), there are any number of compelling elements in this production. You’ll likely squirm. It should probably come with some kind of warning, besides the one about strobe, of graphic violence. Though if you can handle that throwback from the Third Reich on SBS, with his sliced-and-diced cadavers, there’s probably nothing you can’t handle herein.

Alba, arguably, represents more than maternal authority. She (I use the gender assignation advisedly, as it’s ambiguous, despite the priestly frock) is authority-in-general: political; military; religious. The horsewhip s/he wields is a constant menace; a symbol that can turn, in a flash, to implement; a sadomasochistic motif; a sexual fantasy. In similar fashion to the the manner in which
Cageling blurs the lines of theatre, it bends gender: what is feminine; what is female? When one eats one’s veil, is one swallowing the oppression one has long suffered; merely internalising it? Or is one finally coming out? Showing oneself to the world, in an heroic gesture of defiance? There’s plenty to feed on: emotionally, intellectually; even spiritually (even if it brings to mind REM’s Losing My Reigion). It’s not vegetarian theatre, but brontosaurus stick-to-your-ribs fare. Rare. The fatted, golden calf just slain-and-served.

All the performers are brilliant, with requisite intensity. Schlusser & Sassman, particularly, have great charisma (and Sassman, incidentally, a belting blues singer).

The Rabble was formed a few years ago, by Syd Brisbane, Kate Davis and Emma Valente and is “an ongoing conversation about theatrical aesthetic, process and thematics”, between its artistic directors, Kate Davis and Emma Valente. Here we go again. Yada yada. Yawn. Spare me! A leaf out of Bugs Bunny’s book: on with the show. The very real, ever-present danger with this kind of claptrap is one runs the risk of believing one’s own publicity. And what’s most frustrating is this work is so vivid, so verdant, so Jungian, surreal, sexy, brash and beautiful, it doesn’t need the ‘context’, rationale, directors’ notes, or anything else. As colleagues and rivals have noted enthusiastically & rightly (if not in so many words), The Rabble stands on the edge of a theatrical precipice, ready to take the plunge. And plunge they do, into the realm of dreams and nightmares. Look ma, no bungee! It’s a thrilling, chilling, unfinished symphony. More like a still evolving, very cohesive, real-time, whistle-while-you-workshop, before an audience. It doesn’t get much riskier. Or courageous. The importance of those qualities and ambitions alone, can’t be overestimated. The fact they’re unfunded makes it all the more incredible. I mean, it’d be a whole lot easier and more profitable to give it up and do highschool Shakespeare. That’s what damnable integrity will do for you.

is at the cutting-edge of theatre. I think it’s theatre. Anyway, I’m sure it’s at the cutting-edge of something. Magical, mutinous, unorthodox and epic (and let’s not forget viciously political), it incises below the superficial level of mere consciousness. It’s dark music for the eyes. It will tap your soul on the shoulder and say, menacingly, ‘I know you’re in there’. The Rabble is rousing. If only they’d skip the taqriz and leave it up to us, to skip their dark light fantastic.

By Lloyd Bradford Syke

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