Words are necessary tools, and often useful ones – but they can be cumbersome too, and they are cumbersome sometimes in contexts where one isn’t used to noting their inadequacy (or more neutrally put, their irrelevance). We’re so used to talking about our friends and acquaintances using their names as labels, for instance, that we forget how normal it is to watch a crowd of people walking by and interpret their behaviour without ever knowing what they call themselves, or each other.
Until relatively recently, our experience of theatre tended to fall into the former category. But anyone who has read, say, a late script by Beckett (in which the playwright must forsake names for mere alphabetical marks – A, B, C – in order to represent a stage reality in which the characters neither have nor need names at all) is familiar with the latter type of situation. And in a theatre piece by Pina Bausch one may not only be watching nameless characters, but one may be unsure that the actors even represent characters. Perhaps they are just actors: people on a stage. And perhaps, in watching such a piece, our ability to interpret their actions as symbolic of our own – as, in the broadest sense, ‘representative’ – is by no means diminished.
We might find ourselves thinking along these lines in the hours and days after watching Jorge Balça’s Mea Culpa, a show which etches so many powerful images of human couplings – amorous, violent, sociable, lonely – on the retina of our inner eye. We might also be puzzled when we remember the first scene in which (after a strangely beautiful opening of twelve hands intertwining in the darkness) actors obviously do represent characters. Here it’s easier, in writing about the show, to make words and names do the work of describing what we’ve seen: Adam and Eve, the garden of Eden, original sin. And yet here there’s also a lingering sense that this relative ease of description betrays a too easy choice of story. In contrast to almost all of what follows, it’s a scene of almost caricaturish sweetness and light
Is the garden of Eden a story? There is a famous story of something that happened there, and we know that story well enough to be reminded of it by just a few visual cues. But reminding is not narrating. We recognise the story not from what we see on stage (a man and a woman, their nakedness, an apple which may or may not be bitten) but from the existing story of which we know these things are meant to remind us; and I wonder whether the familiarity of that story works for or against subtlety in its re-telling. Does the director have a wide choice of flesh to put on these bare bones marked ‘Eden’, or is the apple of narrative familiarity in fact a temptation to loss of subtlety, reduction of detail, a relative lack of specificity in what the audience can be encouraged to understand?
Elsewhere, the show fares better both in its choice of what to represent and in how it does so. The first of two rape scenes is powerfully inarticulate in the face of what it narrates: the outlines of an action are filled in with chunks of darkness – just enough information, but not too much – and Nektarios Rodosthenous’s loud, grinding music simultaneously represents and blocks out the horror of what we are being shown. A later, second rape scene, ending in a reversal of power, significantly suggests that the show is not just a series of discrete tableaux but that its actors do represent characters (albeit nameless ones), since the rapist here is the same figure we encountered earlier. But another scene – of a coquettish/sex-hungry wife and an indifferent husband who is then tempted by the devil – seems to relate to what precedes it by nothing stronger than simple juxtaposition; and the question of whether all of the show’s characters know one another is a question I would have liked the show to be asking me more than for me to be asking the show.
But the abiding impression is of a sureness of touch which is all the more impressive given how ambitiously the show is seeking to find new ways of conveying meaning from stage to audience. Rather than ‘producing’ a script, Balça takes an almost literally unstageable text – Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation, which not only has no characters but requires no actors, except for the ‘I’ of a speaking voice which seems to know only the past tense – and presents it (literally, makes a present tense out of its succession of pasts) through a collection of non-textual modes whose power derives from the way in which they constantly run up against or intersect with what is most irrevocably linguistic. Here, words are no longer even names but weird, enigmatic grammatical paradigms of action; and sentence relates to sentence not as main clause and subordinate clause but as juxtaposition and implication, succession and suggestion. This is how the show moves too, and how what we see acted relates to what we hear spoken. Reversing the normal hierarchy of ‘text’ and ‘production’, Mea Culpa ultimately does not cancel the text, but (re)discovers it: the text becoming the production just as surely as the production becomes the text.
© 2010 John Fallas