Savage melodies, clown-children, and pink plastic membranes: does postmodernist theatre go too far?


Immersive, overwhelming, and bizarre- Emily Parker investigates the flourishing world of postmodern theatre.

Postmodernist theatre raises more questions than it answers. It aims to highlight human need for meaning in its absence or deconstruction. Ever have that sudden fleeting feeling that you could just suddenly disappear? Ever, for just a second, double take at the people and the communities embedding you, cocooning you, smothering you and find them completely alien?

Under postmodern influence, theatre as it has so long and so widely been appreciated – as holding “as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” – undergoes a catastrophic refiguring. The linearism and aesthetics of conventional theatre – that comfortably familiar, enjoyably predictable swelling and subsiding of traditional, plot-focused drama – falls away completely. What we are left with in its wake, is an uncomfortable vacuum and a pervasive, disorienting senselessness. The question is, are we convinced, or just a bit confused?

Fuerzabruta, directed by Diqui James and first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2007, made its return to UK stages at the Round House in Camden in December 2013, continuing until March this year. It was the fastest-selling production the theatre had ever seen. The Argentine physical theatre piece-cum-nightclub-cum-moving art gallery-cum-circus extravaganza defies all attempts at classification, riding into London, as it did, on the crest of this radical new wave of postmodernist theatre.

The “play” itself, typically in the postmodern genre, does not contain any proper scenes or discernible meaning and is best described, perhaps a little sadly, in cliché. It is an extravaganza – a series of breath-taking visual spectacles in a kaleidoscopic array of colours and materials, within a constantly and drastically-changing set which relentlessly contorts senses of physical space and surrounding.

In Fuerzabruta the audience, crucially, stand throughout and are made to move in accordance with the production and with the constantly-moving set in order to make room for the action. In this way James actually goes a step further in the postmodernist dissolving of the line between play and audience, as his spectators are brought forcefully into the action, often against their will, and made to experience it in a certain way.

James, in an interview with PR Newswire, said that the production represents “not an individual but a social encounter,” but the effect of this constant herding from space to space within the auditorium is that you begin to feel more like herded cattle than an audience actually watching a play at the theatre. Far from participating in a collective experience that is human enough to be social, the postmodernist production is designed to distance the human and draw in the alien.

Random audience members are also embroiled more directly in the action on physical levels of varying degrees of bizarreness, from being lifted into the air on a harness through a hole in a giant plastic membrane which covers the space above the audience’s head halfway between floor and ceiling, to being hit over the head with confetti-filled pizza boxes by belligerent members of the cast dressed in bizarre costumes of a sort of clown-child hybrid. That is just the lucky few.

However, amidst this high-energy and momentum, there are moments of stillness, beauty and utter transfixion. In one of the most arresting moments in Fuerzabruta a clear rubber sheet descends from the ceiling containing water and beautiful female members of the cast who move fluidly and elegantly over the plain. As they slide their bodies across, pushing the water in various directions and creating beautifully cascading aquatic patterns, the bath is bathed in a pink glow. It descends at one point to just above the audience’s heads, so that you can actually reach up and touch it, feeling the people slide weightlessly over your fingers.

The astonishing soundtrack fits seamlessly to the production, augmenting the emotional effects of these highs and lows in action and movement. One minute the air tingles chillingly, pregnant with suspense, as an ominously low and heavy bass reverberates off the walls of the dark, chasmic theatre space. Moments later, lights on and blaring, colours and fabrics streaming, and the air is filled with the hysterical crying, chanting and stomping of the incredibly fit cast. The banging drums, clashing symbols and savage melody of this “fuerza bruta” (brute force), all combine to create an atmosphere of wild, rhythmic, tribal frenzy, whilst the electronic dance overtones push the production, at times, into a quasi-nightclub.

Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine, in contrast to the lavish and excessive staging of Fuerzabruta – nihilistic almost in its chaos – is pointedly resistant to any attempts at staging. Muller himself has commented upon this paradox of an unstageable stage-play that “its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation”. The dichotomy of these two productions so firmly placed within the same deconstructive genre – one, at times, frightening in its momentum and the other, nightmarishly claustrophobic in this “stagnation” and perpetuity – negates any attempt to categorise or characterise the postmodern genre.

Whether the trappings and trimmings of the production are impressive and fantastical, or apocalyptic and sparse, however, the question postmodern theatre poses is, are we convinced? Do we exit the space feeling as if we have been enlightened as to the meaninglessness of the world and our, therefore, arbitrary search for meaning within it, or as though we have actually just been on legal, substance-less, hallucinogenic drugs for the past hour, or in the midst of some hellish nightmare?

Undeniably, postmodernist theatre has value in its mere uniqueness and departure from the conventions of traditional theatre, but to what extent does the effect run deeper?

PHOTO/ Flickr user Ludovic Bertron


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