Feb 16, 2008

Tough Time, Nice Time at The Barbican

For CultureWars.org.uk

Two lithe, well-groomed middle-aged men sit naked in a sleek white bath, whispy spa vapours drifting across the blackness all around them. As the lights rise and fall in delicate, subtle patterns the two men each nurse a single Heineken, sweat slowly glazing their bodies as they wriggle and stretch in their luxurious confinement. They babble flippantly, incessantly, in soft German accents. Literally nothing else happens. Time slips by unnoticed. After 70 minutes the show ends as suddenly as it began and the audience reels back into reality having seen one of the most simple, effortlessly brilliant pieces of theatre they will see all year.

Ridiculusmus (or Jon Haynes and David Woods) reference Beckett in their programme notes and undoubtedly his dark, absurd intelligence pokes through in a lot of places. There is definitely something very Beckettian in the aimless, nihilistic repartee of the these two wealthy Germans enjoying an expensive Bangkok bath; their sparky, needling conversation subtly looping back on itself, meandering indefinitely through barely-defined time. You feel this pointless banter could last forever, all of us waiting here in this chic abyss, biding our time until death finally arrives in all its anti-climactic, meaningless finality.

And like Beckett what makes this joyously transfixing and eminently theatrical is the beautifully observed dialogue and the brilliance of the brittle, flinty relationship that it conjures. A lawyer with a penchant for young Thai boys, attempts to tell his story (or stories) to a darkly charismatic and fundamentally disinterested publicist fascinated by atrocities and his own half-invented past. This basic context is constantly undermined by interruptions, interjections, non-sequiturs, and a seemingly endless litany of recent Hollywood films; Blood Diamond, Munich, Walk the Line, Syriana, Michael Clayton, One Day in September and The Constant Gardner. Especially The Constant Gardner, endlessly The Constant Gardner, a nagging thought that won’t go away.

It is in this that the show makes a decisive leap away from Beckett and towards something decided more (post)modern. In this world (in our world) the whole of human history, every story, every epic tragedy, every personal anecdote has been appropriated by cinema. Anything that was once truthful has been borrowed and structured and given its own manipulatively emotive soundtrack. Even the most brutal, the most astoundingly awful genocides and holocausts have been appropriated and turned into a familiar narrative arc. Anything that once might have meant something to us has been taken from us and rendered meaningless by imposing on it a story we (fundamentally) already know.

It is this world that these characters are seeped in. Where we know atrocities through the films that have been made of them and dictators through the celebrities who have played them. And so these nonchalant German sex-tourists flit unconsciously from Auschwitz to Hollywood without a second thought because the two are now fundamentally the same thing (an idea beautifully, hilariously typified by a joke about Sharon Osbourne and Ariel Sharon that I won’t give away here as I pretty much demand that you go and see this show for yourself). Indeed, so soaked in the narrative structures of American cinema are they that their own lives are unconsciously constructed as a series of potential screenplays, rendering their own existence nothing but a potential commodity – a simulacrum of living that we can only consider as possible pitch (to a new partner, to a biographer).

In this context the show itself could be seen as a very conscious other to this process of narrativisation. It is an anti-story – devoid of any discernable structure, plot, character development or tension. It refuses any attempt to turn itself into a story, and in doing so offers a glimmer of hope amidst all this second-hand barbarism; that we can still create something new, something meaningful and something authentic. And so despite the casual horror and the flippant nihilism of the characters sweating away in their bath, I left the auditorium with the nagging hope that possibly we’re still not totally doomed; a hope that theatre like this still offers the potential for ways of telling that are meaningful and vital.

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