I was inspired by Chris Vitiello's frank and true take-down of Yossi Berg and Oded Graf's choreography to provide my own "worst aesthetic experience" of last year. Chris's account is not only brilliantly written but also necessary: it points eloquently to certain unfortunate tendencies in many post- (or post- post-) modern productions, for instance:
1. intentionally boring the audience, and then asking that we confuse such proeminent catalepsy with daring profundity
2. an ersatz rebellion against cliché which is in fact a rehashing of the cliché "rebellion against cliché"
3. dull ideology and didacticism cloaked in the garments of political engagement
4. sloppy and/or deeply lazy thinking
5. no thinking
You get the picture... Negative reviews often attempt to master a tone of objectivity. It is difficult to describe however the experience of seeing Marthaler’s ± 0 in impersonal terms. (God, even the title, which I apparently have to write like that, but which one apparently pronounces "Plus Minus Zero", meaning nobody knows how to buy tickets at the box-office, and is reduced to saying "two for the Marthaler play please", thus reinforcing the good man's auteur status). In personal terms, I can only say this was one of the most traumatic theatrical, and more generally aesthetic, experiences I have ever been made to endure, and traumatic is not used here in the positive, regenerative, Beuysian-therapeutic sense, but rather in the sense of the empty trauma of manipulation and abusive aesthetic trickery.
Readers of The Newer Metaphysicals may already have guessed that this brief compte rendu of Marthaler’s new play will be rather, shall we say, negative. I feel comforted in expressing this personal opinion given the otherwise positive reception of the play. The Libération review sums up this positive reception rather well:
La première de ± 0 a [. . .] rebuté plusieurs dizaines de spectateurs du Théâtre de la Ville, déroutés par la lenteur et l’inaction apparente. Il y a chez Marthaler une morale du non-événement, une invitation à prendre le temps de s’intéresser au dérisoire, en totale contradiction avec l’agitation contemporaine. Il faut d’autant plus accepter de se laisser embarquer dans cet autre rythme que Marthaler n’a rien perdu d’un humour qui trouve son apothéose peu avant la fin, dans une mémorable partie de football organisée avec les téléphones portables qui jonchent le plateau, pantomime qui règle en toute élégance son compte avec notre temps.
At the première of ± 0, several dozen audience members left the Théâtre de la Ville, turned off by the play's slowness and apparent inaction. There is, in Marthaler, a moral of the non-event: we are invited to find the derisory interesting, in utter contradiction with contemporary agitation. One must allow oneself to be carried away by Marthaler's different rhythm for the reason that he has not lost any of his humour, which reaches its apotheosis, just before the play's end, in a memorable game of football carried out with mobile phones strewn across the stage, in a pantomine which critiques our modern times with great elegance.
Well... How in the world contemporary society does not ask us to "become interested in the derisory" is beyond me. But anyway.... Marthaler, one of the guiding lights of contemporary operatic and theatrical staging, has here set himself the project of depicting a sort of half-baked futuristic, perhaps post climactic apocalypse Greenland. This vague semblance of a situation basically allows Marthaler to have his 12 or so performers walk around vaguely, dress, undress, sing (often obscured from the view of the audience, with their backs turned), kick things scattered about on the stage floor, emit vague and uninteresting "surrealistic" narratives for exceedingly love periods of time, twitch, fall on the floor, enter, exit, run, slam up against the walls, bang their heads against the walls, etc. Such actions are repeated, with no apparent structure, for nigh on 2 hours 30 minutes.
Sometimes aesthetic categories fail our exegesis... Let me put this another way: who are we fooling here? Do we feel clever or intelligent or non-conservative or non-reactionary just by being bored out of our minds by contentless stagings, assuring ourselves that this aesthetic object, though inciting no emotion no ethics no spiritual engagement no thought, is at least “very avant-garde” (meaning exceedingly painful to watch and generally meaningless)?
I will continue to reject and to despise conventional, conservative rehashings of aesthetic norms; but the art Malthaler creates is just as bad as any conservative art, in that it reproduces the exhausted gestures of a different sort, those of a tired and just as tropological avant. Is this what it means to be an experimental artist, to regurgitate old formal and imagogical parameters of “experimentalism” which already became clichetic some 20 years ago?
Here's an image of Marthaler's sprawling, lazy set design, which basically summarizes this entire contentially impoverished process:
In order to recreate for oneself the entire experience of the play, simply imagine each of these people walking around randomly, playing the accordion, bending over with glasses, yelling and running and bumping into things, falling over and writhing around (yes! trope number 1393, thanks to Chris V. for spotting the "writhing around" on the stage trope as well...), and generally doing "absurd things" mixed with repeated dialogue no writer or editor would ever think of putting out into the world. Repeat all this for several hours, and fight the urge to sleep...
It's just like you were there.
Since when did we so utterly confuse the "true tenets of the avant-garde" with the sort of fake, empty theatrical posturing that Marthaler incarnates? ± 0 is a rehashed jumble-sale of all the clichés and tired tropes of what everyone hates about "experimental theatre" : unending silence, painful boredom, performers’ screaming for no reason, ridiculous exaggerated movements confused with dynamism, inane narratives confused with true ethical engagement...
Let's just take for a moment the play's apparent politics. ± 0's political engagement consists in something about ice caps and mobile phones and a link maybe between environmental degradation and consumerism. Or something. "Or something" are really the iterative terms here. Such sloppy and derivative thinking really says nothing of note. But of course, it is not meant to "say" anything (an outdated idea), but rather to jolt us with long periods of boredom punctuated by sudden loud noises. Now that's respect for an audience!
For if ± 0 is not just bad theatre but also, I would argue, profoundly unethical theatre, it is not only because of the simplistic and naive ideological posturing on "indigenous people" and "Europeans", but above all because of its treatment of its audience. The latter are made to endure, in utter boredom, the repetition of entire scenes – reperformed without any apparent reason or effect –, are made to listen to invisible actors almost inaudibly singing behind stage dividers or segments, are frightened by sudden deafening alarms on stage which send the actors into a frenzy...
Of course, we can imagine the aesthetic justifications for such "process": that the deafening and meaningless alarms incarnate a Brechtian reawakening of a langourous and drugged polis, or that the painfully long dialogues in the indigenous languages of Greenland constitute a profound reflection on the role of disappearing or displaced languages in a post-Babel world of mondialisation... The fact that such facile justifications for this genuine aesthetic dishonesty are so easy to find is all the more distressing. It's a sign that our contemporary, postmodern extra-diagetic discourse can make this specific type of fakery seem, at least on the surface, like a true epistemological process at play.
I was convinced then that the audience at the Théâtre de la Ville was suffering, and they were: yawning, falling asleep, rolling their eyes while looking at their friends, giggling, consulting their phones, exclaiming “putain” (fuck) in frustration when one of the scenes began to be repeated... Again...
Perhaps 10 percent of the audience left. I wanted to leave, but a seething discontent at such artistic dishonesty made me want to see this thing out to the end...
|Sadly, in Avignon, I missed this one...|
Malthaler’s play seemed representative of a general error, a general terrible confusion between empty “experimental” norms and truly experimental – in the sense of ethically and spiritually and aesthetically radical – works of art. And the distressing proof that audiences are increasingly unable to distinguish between the two lay in the fact that, at the curtain’s fall, those same audience members near to me who had slept for at least 40 to 50 minutes of the play, who had yawned, who had consulted their text messages etc... a certain number of these audience members stood to their feet at the close of +-0, and applauded rapturously. And some of them, masochistic to the end, began, with an expression of weird grotesque ecstasy on their faces, to repeatedly scream "BRAVO! BRAVO!"
Just let that sink in for a moment. I was dumbstruck. I had seen them sleep.
But this seems like a crucial experience. As that which could lead an audience member to fall asleep during a play, to swear in frustration, and in general to suffer for no apparent reason, and then to enthusiastically scream “BRAVO!” while looking around at his fellow audience members at the play's end... this astounding psychological occurrence needs to be understood, and addressed, and seems generally crucial.
To quote Chris on an entirely different, but no doubt eerily familiar, aesthetic experience:
The point-and-click pastiche continued. I think that Berg and Graf think they’re presenting the radical (read: maximal facetiousness) thought that identity is multiple and complex, and that a rapidly changing world accelerates the interaction between one’s inner selves and the selves one presents on the outside. Removing their clothes, pulling off and putting on their animal masks, stepping forward to deliver “I am” lines such as “I am a Hungarian lifeguard” and “I am a beauty queen from Venezuela, I used to be a man”—these are hackneyed signifiers that were coopted by authoritative bodies before these dancers’ parents were born.
Amen. But if Berg and Graf and Marthaler lead to one thing, it should be to discussions about the motivations and meanings of such "sleep and sms-sending followed by rapturous applause", to a vibrant questioning of how this reaction itself is able to take place.