By Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.
A bit of a mix-up (my end I think) meant that my tickets for Pornography weren’t at the Arts Centre when I arrived. A stranger standing nearby had a spare, though, as one of his party hadn’t shown. He gave it to me. Thanks, Greg, wherever you may be.
Pornography is a very 'festival' kind of show – very big, very international, very often representing certain trends which are very current right now. The kind of thing that wouldn’t tour to Melbourne without festival backing, but not due to any lack of merit. It has a large cast, a massive set, and is sufficiently arty enough not to have the mainstream appeal required to tour Oz on ticket sales alone. It’s an extremely strong show and I’d call it one of MIAF’s best this year.
It’s composed of seven sequences which aren’t explicitly connected, though each occurs in the week surrounding the 2005 London terrorist attacks. These figure into the narratives at times, but it’s certainly not “about” those events. It’s much looser than that.
One piece follows a violent, racist schoolboy harbouring horrific longings for his teacher; another sees two adult siblings getting hysterically drunk and getting it on; another has an older academic befriending a former student and masturbating pathetically while she dances on a table. It sounds nastier than it is – in fact, it’s quite a funny and poetic piece of theatre.
The script was written by Brit Simon Stephens (his Motortown received a fantastic production by Red Stitch last year). Hamburg’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus staged this production, which leads to some wonderful dissonances: it’s performed in German and I constantly found myself forgetting that this was a play written in and very specifically set within London. It develops a more universal, pan-cultural aspect due to the translation, though sometimes it’s not word-perfect, as even my limited German picked up. (I mean my knowledge of German. I don’t have a limited German friend).
The production itself is beautiful: the performances are great, the staging faultless, and only the projected surtitles gave me a major problem, but that’s because Greg’s ticket was about four rows from the front and I had to crane my neck in misosteopathic ways just to read what was being said, and that also meant that I couldn’t watch the stage at the same time I was reading the translations. Verdammt scheiße nochmal! No thanks there, Greg.
Maybe it was just the German link, but for some reason I was thinking about the exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ that the Nazis organised in 1937. A massive number of works were collected from around Germany and displayed in Munich in order to show to gallery-goers how corrupt and morally bankrupt modern art had become. It was a strange and terrible enterprise – an exhibition aimed to illustrate how bad its featured contents were.
I’m not slinging accusations of fascism at Simon Stephens here, but the eyebrow-raising contents of Pornography also seem unnervingly close to a condemnation of the degeneracy of modern life. The pornography of the title is figurative, referring to a world in which humans have become objects and nothing is unthinkable. It’s a bit like Baudrillard’s description of postmodern life as obscene – if meaning is created in the gaps, in our apprehending the space between what is shown and what isn’t, then the sheer excess of our world today does away with meaning simply by making everything available for display. There’s no more room for possibility or imagination, since everything that can be imagined has already been shown.
Pornography presents a world in which every taboo has been broken, in which morality is just a lingering ghost, in which polyphony drowns out meaning. Importantly, the fractured Tower of Babel that makes up the stage backdrop is eerily resonant here: the biblical tower of cultures united was an offence against God, who got miffed and scattered its inhabitants by making them speak different languages. (I just checked that against my faulty memory/poor religious education and it turns out that in the Bible the Tower wasn’t destroyed; the inhabitants just stopped building it when they couldn’t understand each other anymore).
So: what’s the significance here? Are we playing god in lamenting the perverse plurality of this society? Or are we supposed to accept these freaks whose Otherness seems so unacceptable? Or is intolerance of difference a common theme in the various characters themselves, whose reactions (neo-Nazism, terrorism, invective, self-hatred or obsessive desire) are really responses to their inability to meaningfully communicate with the others around them? Dunno. Just some thoughts.
By Abbey Theatre.
When I picked up my tickets to THIS show (at the Malthouse) I saw that I was seated in the balcony, and thought that was sweet since I hadn’t been up there for a while. But arriving at the theatre door I was told to keep heading up the stairs to the second balcony. Holy crap! In all my years I never even knew there was a third level to the Merlyn Theatre! Now I do, and I also know that the back row of the dress circle is about three kilometres from the stage. This turned out to be a good thing, however, since Terminus isn’t really a visually exciting show and works best as an aural experience. The three performers mostly just stand there telling the story. It’s pretty gross, too, so being able to shudder and clutch your stomach well out of sight of your fellow punters isn’t so bad.
What Terminus lacks in the people-moving-around-doing-things department it more than makes up for in descriptions of eye-gouging. It’s something obviously lacking from much contemporary theatre and I wondered if it was an allusion to King Lear. I guess that would make Gloucester a hefty lesbian interrupted while trying to perform an abortion on a drunk woman using a broomstick, which might be stretching things a bit, but either way the words “Shakespeare for our times” began to rumble around the back of my throat during this bit. Actually, that might have just been my dinner rising to the occasion.
Terminus is very reminiscent of Clive Barker, or David Cronenberg, or perhaps Neil Gaiman with the gore factor turned up a notch. It’s kind of magical realism but I hesitate to use that term as it usually implies a pretty stomachable kind of fantasy, and this isn’t really that. The piece is composed of three interrelated monologues: a woman dies violently but is saved from the angels of deliverance by a vengeful soul incarnated as thousands of worms; a serial killer leaves a trail of guts across Ireland; a teacher tries to save a former student from the aforementioned abortion only to end up witnessing a kind of horrible miracle.
The work is extremely sharp and polished and quite a memorable thing. I doesn’t really suggest itself to any kind of deeper reading, and doesn’t speak of much beyond the fantasy it elucidates. But this isn’t to say that it doesn’t linger in the mind well after viewing – it certainly does, but only because of the vivid and terrible imagery and powerful performances. That’s good enough, I think, although it doesn’t seem so much of a ‘festival’ show as Pornography, simply because it’s more of a good tale well told than something that questions the possibilities of an art form. Maybe that’s just because I’m buddy-buddy enough with fantasy and horror to be reasonably comfortable with the narrative; perhaps putting such a genre piece on a festival platform is a radical move in itself.