It’s been just over a week since I saw my favourite show presented at FLARE15, El Conde De Torrefiel’s Scenes For A Conversation…, and I’ve had plenty of practice at describing why I thought it was such a stand-out piece of theatre.
I was working on the producing team for the festival as the Marketing Manager, and was responsible for drumming up interest in the press, getting people through the door and making the most of the time and resources we had. I think we did a good job, considering this was experimental theatre from the continent, which doesn’t exactly scream ‘great Thursday night out’ to the general public. But then that alludes to a wider problem of how we regard the humantities and what they’re for.
I’ve really enjoyed talking about this show, and feel in some ways that I’m doing much more for contemporary international theatre by talking about it than I did sat behind a computer (like now). Word of mouth is the strongest marketing channel because you have the leisure of time and a face-to-face interaction with a captive audience. You don’t have to spend time trying to catch their eye in the pages of a busy magazine, or on the wall of Abdul’s takeaway – you’re talking directly to them. You can judge whether what you’re saying is working in real time. We’ve not yet reached the stage where adverts can get up and wave their arms around, and whoop and holler about why what they’re selling is so good. Thank god for that, because the developed world would be a fucking hellish place to live if they could. People can, however.
(And at this precise moment, I recall the existence of charity ‘muggers’ and think you should ignore a fair proprotion of what I just wrote).
Anyway, I was at the Arts Marketing Association conference yesterday, talking to another delegate who saw the FLARE brochure . They said how difficult it was to choose what to see, partly because they were on a limited budget, partly becuase most of the names were unfamiliar, and because all of the shows were consistently interesting and nicely presented (licks finger, plants it firmly on flank, makes sizzling noise). Now obviously the answer here would have been to buy an early bird festival pass and see it all. But since that’s not always possible and we have to make choices, my choice would have been El Conde De Torrefiel, and I said so.
Why? Let’s forget enigmatic, ‘tantalising’ show copy, or awards and accolades from far flung festivals, and focus on what it was that made me so enthusiastic instead.
It starts with someone walking on stage in darkness with a big white board in front of them. It’s so big you can’t see them behind it. They place it down and stay obscured. Then another performer walks to the corner of the stage and faces away from you, still in darkness. The lights go up very slightly, very slowly, evoking something dingy, like a dungeon.
A spotlight on the white board shows a glory hole framing a real, human penis. It’s not doing anything in particular, just hanging there, and as you adjust to this, the other performer – the one with their back to you – starts telling a story about a man and his girlfriend into the microphone.
She’s young, pretty, likes Jagermeister and loves him slightly more than he loves her. But he’s a good guy. They get on well, will go on to get married, have a kid and be happy together. It’s just he’s always wondered what it would be like to be fucked by 4 or 5 people that he doesn’t know. He’s been having dreams about it: people with no facial features and chainsaws for arms, which his mother sometimes gatecrashes at the worst times.
It might sound sordid but its told in such a matter of fact, unsensationalist way that you take it that way. The guy goes to Berlin and lives out his fantasy. He exchanges the regret of unrealised desires for a moment of joy he will never attain again. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He buys his girlfriend a stag’s head as a present from his trip abroad and hangs it on their wall. You get the sense he’s not just placating her though. All those stubby branches on the antlers…He’ll be happy again. They’ll be happy together. But he’ll never be quite that happy.
One by one, more performers have been entering the stage, striking and holding abstract poses until there’s four in a line. As the story ends, the lights brighten starkly and a propulsive industrial track pounds away, animating the performers in a small, measured, repetitive movements that go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – an arm sawing away, hips swivelling, mechanical motions, evoking the relentless, sometimes mononotonous pursuit of pleasure. Ever had sex with someone you didn’t love? It can be fucking boring.
But watching this is pure pleasure for me: the sudden confluence of chainsaw limbs, dredged from his dream and thrust in a dark room makes me feel like the story has been a leisurely kind of foreplay for this visual money-shot. It only lasts for a minute until one by one, the performers peel off, the board is removed and the speaker leaves until just one dancer is left, his restrained gestures becoming bigger, looser until he’s dancing to the same music.
Now the captions tell us we’re in a club at 4:00 in the morning. This man is having the time of his life. He’s just spoken to Penolope Cruz and is feeling rather smug about it. He feels great! His mum died a couple of minutes ago too. It’s going to fuck him up for a year when he eventually finds out. She once told him when he was 12 that it was a mistake to have brought him into the world. No, they’ve never really had a great relatonship.
As I watch the artist jump and flail around on stage, knowing what he doesn’t yet know, his movements become incredibly loaded. Yes, he could be celebrating, dancing for dancing’s sake, but equally he could also be throwing punches at something that’s not there, trying to fight his own rage with his fists. Fruitless maybe, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel exhilarating trying. And who’s to say I’m watching him dance in a club anymore? We all know we’re really in a theatre, so what’s to stop me from imagining he’s in an alley, or a hospital, kicking over bins and tearing down posters? The detail about the death, delivered like a punch from someone who doesn’t hate me, or even know me, reminds me that we’re never watching one story when we look at other people – there are secrets, complexities and contradictions that are far richer than we’ll ever fully appreciate.
If you don’t know me (and indeed hate me by this point), you’ll have to imagine me telling you this with the cadence of animated speech, big hand gestures, helpful demonstrations, and lots of eye contact. Really, I should have filmed this. It’s a performance in itself, but not one where I’m having to fake the pleasure.
What I’m trying to say is this show trasported me between euphoria and heartbreak, and then landed somewhere around the region of ‘wry melancholia’. It was sexy, smart, dark and funny. It distilled 12 stories into their essences and made me glad to live them for 90 minutes.
Part of me thinks we could do the arts a lot of good if we all talked about shows in this way. Fuck the elevator pitch. Just talk about the last show you saw with enthusiasm and passion, what it was that was so incredible about it. Go on a 10 minute spiel. I firmly believe great theatre creates moments so much more nuanced and fulfilling than music, TV, football, golf etc. that it’s kind of criminal not to talk about it in this way, and that more people don’t experience it. This was one of those shows..