Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Artist is Busy

This is an account of my experience of 512 Hours by Marina Abramovic, the Serpentine Gallery, London, on Thursday 26 June 2014. Each experience will be individual and therefore different. But if you plan to experience it yourself you may want to read this afterwards.

for Tobi

The Queue
I'm welcomed to the Exhibition. There are some rules. No phones, no sunglasses, no bags allowed - they should be deposited into lockers. A woman behind me changes her mind, turns around and leaves.
My hand is stamped with numbers - the title of the show and today's date.

The Antechamber 
A room with lockers not unlike a changing room in a gym.
The Artist is sitting on a bench chatting with a visitor.
I rush in because I have nothing to deposit, having left everything with the baby and partner outside.

The Central Room
I'm caught in mid-stride as I realise that one enters the Exhibition in medias res.
There is a cross-like platform in the room crossed with a cross-like formation of folding Ikea chairs stemming outwards (four in each row).
People are standing in the centre of the platform their eyes closed.
People are sitting in the chairs with headphones on - their eyes mostly closed.
I'm trying to work out the rules.
Will I have to wait for the Artist to put me into this installation when she finally comes in?
How long have these people been here?
I realise some people are coming and leaving on their own - it's a self sustained mechanism, it does not require the Artist all the way through.
There is a young man in the centre who looks very eager as if he has been there since early morning and intends on staying till closing hours - intends on putting his own durational performance in.
A chair in front of me is vacated, the person gets up and hangs the cordless headphones on the back of the chair.
Is there a queue - I try and ascertain whether someone is waiting to sit down - they are not; a woman behind me goes for it.
I take the next available seat.
I put the headphones on - silence.
I notice some people holding hands in the centre of the platform.
A couple - beaming man, gently smiling woman - come into the centre together; perhaps they are holding hands because it's less scary stepping in on their own.
I look at the kind of people attracted by the work.
Artsy-types, lots of really young hopeful faces, some older people, a woman sitting in a chair meditating, palms facing upwards, eyes closed.
Two women step on holding hands - they look like they could be mother and daughter.
Then I realise the woman who I thought was part of the 'couple' is whispering matter-of-factly into the ear of the man - she is part of the show.
She is dressed in black and she is one of many vigilant figures walking around, taking people by the hand.
She then gives the man a rub down his back and chest and leaves. 
I decide the people in black are 'Curators' - people literally 'taking care' of the space and the people in the space.
I speculate whether the Artist has acted as a Director on this occasion and may not be part of it at all.
The Artist has created an Exhibition consisting of the visitors themselves.
She has taken the notion of Presence as a material for art-making from her MOMA show (The Artist is Present) and extended it to the viewers of art - their Presence too can be moulded; they too can be an artwork; they too can find Art within themselves.
The Artist has issued a challenge to the tradition of a passive viewer of Art, to the hierarchical relationship between Artist (as a specially gifted entity) and Viewer (as somehow inferior to the Artist).
The Artist has issued a challenge to the idea that Art and the Experience of it is an element of material reality.
How will this be appreciated by someone who does not believe that the Invisible exists?
I catch a glimpse of the Artist - a person in black trousers and a white untucked in shirt, her hair braided into a loose hanging 'pletenica'.
She is talking to a visitor standing by the wall - they both look relaxed though the Artist is also in the flow, purposeful and only pausing briefly here before she moves onto someone else.
I'm aware I'm one of the rare few people actually watching what's going on and straining and moving to the left and to the right trying to see; the others are cantering themselves in silence.
I lift the headphones off and I'm suddenly aware of an onslaught of sounds - mostly just feet moving in the space - I wonder for a moment whether it's actually raining outside. 
Those were good headphones, I conclude.

The Room to the Right
White walls and white blinds and rows of chairs with cordless headphones hanging off them, facing the whiteness.
I bump into the Artist on my way in and we exchange smiles and whispered hellos - she looks busy and happy in her work mode.
Her face is open and generous.
I take a look in, I don't fancy sitting in chairs any more so I turn around to go to the other room.

The Room to the Left
I am asked by a Curator on the door if I want to go in.
I say yes.
I'm given a blindfold and some brief instructions.
I put the blindfold on and wait in the doorway.
Someone grabs my right hand, laces their fingers with mine and takes me into the space.
Could it be the Artist?
A cold dry hand.
Should I peek to see?
What clues are there?
We keep walking.
My companion makes a small sigh - it is a woman.
We stop walking.
Will she leave me now?
Do I have the choice not to let her go?
She seems to want me to turn right.
So I do.
We take a few more steps.
My hand brushes the end of a shirt.
Is it a white shirt?
I'm left on my own with the words 'go' or 'go ahead' or maybe 'go along ' or 'go alone' whispered with an accent so I don't know exactly.
I keep walking.
What happens when I want to stop and leave the room?
I keep walking.
I bump into someone who is just standing there.
I realise I can open my eyes a bit and see the floor.
I see I have actually collided with two other people who are standing there.
What next?
Should I touch them?
We just stand there.
I go on.
I keep walking and I sense I'm coming to a wall.
I stop.
Am I being watched?
Has someone seen the fact that I've peeked?
I close my eyes and walk a bit more towards the wall holding the fingers of my hands slightly out so I don't bump into it.
I turn around.
I keep walking.
Someone's hand brushes against mine.
I sense I'm in a well of light and I stop.
I peek again.
I see someone - a man - making very small geisha-like steps in his trainers going past me on my right.
I wonder whether someone will come and get me, and take me out?
I decide to take my blindfold off.
I take a look at the room.
I'm by the exit.
I leave, handing my blindfold back to a Curator who has her hand stretched out for it anyway.

Back in the Central Room
Looking at the Exhibition from a different perspective.
It is a mandala this cross-like structure the Artist had created here out of wood - all the same colour.
The woman in the chair is still meditating her palms facing upwards, her eyes closed, her ears covered with headphones.
I keep my hands behind me on the wall - is that saying 'No' to the Curators?
Then I notice most of the others have taken up the same stance.
An older Asian woman is standing next to the wall on my left wearing John Lennon sunglasses.
But they said no sunglasses allowed! 
She occupies the space in a commanding, charismatic way.
Dressed mostly in creams and whites with white running shoes on.
I choose not to look at her - she could be someone famous.
One of the Curators - a neat looking boy - is leading a woman by the hand who keeps looking back to her boyfriend who follows behind.
They must have just arrived.
She seems a bit disgruntled to be taken in like that.
Her boyfriend follows obediently.
He leads them to the centre and whispers to both of them.
A female Curator comes to me:
'Do you want to go to the centre?' She asks with an accent.
'Are you sure?'
We go in.
'Open your feet a bit more and close your eyes'.
We stand there.
I am thinking.
Does my baby want me?
Is he crying?
I look through my third eye.
How do I record all this?
We stand there holding hands.
Will she let go?
Will she be offended if I leave as soon as she leaves me?
She rubs my chest and my back - she centres me.
She leaves me saying:
'Stay as long as you can'.
Stay as long as you can - is that a challenge or an invitation?
Why not 'stay as long as you *want*'?
I can stay longer than I want but I can't stay that long - I have responsibilities.
Why can't I be allowed to write about this while in here like I would at any other exhibition?
What shall I call my account of this -
'One of Marina's 512 hours?'
I peek.
I notice the man who was standing here at the beginning as if he intended to stay the whole day is no longer here.
I turn around and go.
(I notice artefacts for sale on my way out - the Artist's glass for drinking water, a pencil, an umbrella - all with a price-tag... The instructions for drinking water on her glass remind me this is all about mindfulness, though she may have arrived at it via a different route.)
I emerge with the words:
How long was I in there for?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

A View from the Bridge (Young Vic)

It has become customary now for Ivo van Hove's work in London to be receiving standing ovations. If it was hardly a surprise for the Barbican audience to have given such a reception to the marathon Roman Tragedies (2010) or vertiginous Scenes from a Marriage (2013), the overwhelming enthusiasm for his latest work at the Young Vic really seals the deal. But as the audience around me was - deservedly - jumping up to their feet I was trying to fathom what they were actually applauding: The play, the director, or the actors?

And here was I on a rare trip to the theatre - the first one on my own since giving birth in December - thinking of my students. Not specific ones, just students of directing I have taught, and the general preconception they tend to arrive with that a good time in the theatre equals  good acting, and that the main job of the director is to facilitate this. When they direct, many of them approach the task by simply trying to bring out the kind of performances they like to see or that they would instinctively create themselves if they were playing those parts. This is a generalisation - and I must admit that there have been honourable exceptions to this - but it's a tendency that crops up frequently enough in practice not to go unnoticed. And I think it is rooted in the British cultural heritage of a theatre director as an actor manager rather than an author in his own right.

As it happens, Van Hove did bring out first class performances from his British cast (cumulatively far stronger perhaps even than the performances of his own ensemble members previously seen here), but the way he did this seems very different than my students might have expected.

I have already written about the way in which Van Hove's approach to text can be distinguished from that of a British director by reference to an intense interest in dramaturgy ( In his production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, Van Hove demonstrates that this approach does not have to be culture specific. It does not have to be radical in terms of staging or the treatment of text itself. It works even with an American play, British and American actors, and a British audience. (British critics seemingly too, though at the time of writing this response I have deliberately not read any of the reviews yet). This deep dramaturgical reading of a play can also be deployed to serve the text in the same way that British directors tend to do, but in this case, everything coheres around what the director and dramaturg have decided the play is about rather than 'what the author might have intended'. And by being directed with such clarity, the actors are truly liberated to shine. Which they do, to a magnificent extent.

So what did Van Hove specifically do with Miller's text?

The world of the play is literally encapsulated by Jan Versweyveld's set - an empty white box whose walls lift up at the beginning to offer a lateral cross section view of the characters' lives. This could be an imaginary courtyard, an enterior, a prison, a morgue and, towards the end, it even offers a chilling prospect of a metaphorical abatoir.

Even though the play opens with naturalistic physical gestures denoting the characters' interactions, the set is bare and, gradually, dramatic action becomes increasingly spare too. The performance is almost entirely underscored with an atmospheric, solemn score.

When the narrator - lawyer Alfieri - literally enters the story half way through, he takes his shoes off to join the other barefoot characters. The rising tensions between characters are underlined in a scene where they all sit around the edges of the set taking turns in speaking their lines to the beat of a metronome. Thus the diegisis enters the mise en scene, divorcing the action from the text and making way for a theatrical metaphor. This will culminate later in a scene where the immigration authorities arrive to arrest Marco and Rodolpho and which is rendered almost entirely verbally with Alfieri reciting the stage directions as the rest of the cast acquire more of a choric function. The moulding of the ensemble into metaphorical stage imagery will ultimately provide a fittingly epic finale to the piece as a whole too.

Miller's own choice to tell the story as a combination of Greek tragedy and Brechtian episodic narrative as well as van Hove's non-naturalistic directorial approach are both conducive towards an acting idiom which is not rooted in psychological realism. So we are at no point in the show invited to respond sentimentally. And yet, the acting is, as I have mentioned above, the most powerful aspect of the production which does eventually elicit a catharsis of sorts. In this way van Hove reveals another possible conception of dramatic character as bearer of metaphorical value rather than a role model for everyday human behaviour. In any case there is nothing everyday about tragic characters such as these. In other words, Eddie Carbone is not an incestuous uncle modelled on someone from Jerry Springer. Instead he becomes an impersonation of a particular flaw - the inability to let go - which may afflict anyone. Catherine is not an innocent victim; she has the wisdom to know what love is and how her uncle should be loved by a woman, or when she should escape his grip to love another man. These characters are interesting not because they are recognisable but because they are irreducible to a stereotype. They are both right and wrong and it takes some deliberation to view their behaviour in terms of the law of nature, as Alfieri suggests.

And so, as Eddie attempted to defend his overprotectiveness of Catherine by reference to the promise he made to her mother, I suddenly thought that he is no different than the theatre directors who feel their job is to honour the text. Stretching the analogy further I wondered what model of directorial intention the rest of these characters might embody. There is Eddie Carbone's tenacity, Beatrice's didacticism, Rodolpho's unconventional, ethereal, enticing ways. Or there is the route of pragmatic straightforwardness and physical prowess of Marco whose method is most searingly summed up in an act of lifting a chair. Finally there is Catherine who entertains our expectations up to a certain extent until she shows us she knows how to fly. And I would liken van Hove's approach on this occasion to hers. Whether or not this might seem a far fetched proposition, I would certainly recommend this show to any theatre student as a primer in how to read a play.

Direction Ivo van Hove 
Design and Light 
Jan Versweyveld
Costumes An D’Huys
Sound Tom Gibbons
Dramaturg Bart Van den Eynde 
UK Casting Julia Horan CDG 
US Casting Jim Carnahan CSA
Emun Elliott
Phoebe Fox
Michael Gould
Richard Hansell
Luke Norris
Jonah Russell
Mark Strong
Nicola Walker

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A homecoming of sorts

Since December last year I have been travelling with a pram in tow, so this usually means up and down the Jubilee line, and a couple of times, exceptionally, to the British library. As a result I'm also returning more to the notion of reading playscripts rather than watching live performances. And one play I have been particularly looking forward to reading has been Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me).


Commissioned by Vienna's Schauspielhaus to be performed as part of the anniversary of the First World War, Biljana Srbljanovic's Princip (This Grave is Too Small for Me) has already been in performance there since October 2013 and last month it also received a Belgrade premiere under the direction of the Sarajevan director Dino Mustafic. As we speak, another production of the play has just opened at the Berlin Schaubuhne  , directed by the Iranian director Mina Salehpour.

I was initially intrigued by the play on hearing a radio interview with the playwright on the Belgrade radio station Pescanik in June last year ( Here the playwright shared her extraordinarily intriguing research which she referred to as 'cinematic' on several occasions, as well as her main overriding thesis that the assassin Gavrilo Princip and his teenage collaborators were first and foremost Yugoslavs, rather than Serbian nationalists as recent history has claimed. These aspiring intellectuals, socialists, anarchists and proto-feminists from Bosnia were, according to Srbljanovic's research, seduced and brutally manipulated by a Serbian nationalist secret society which has in various incarnations survived ideologically up until the present day and can also be held accountable for the assassination of the Serbian democratic pro-western prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Testimonies from the assassins' court hearings are invoked in which Princip for example claims that he is a Yugoslav, and a Serbo-Croat speaker without religious allegiance. This is coupled with imagery of the historical person being kept in the Terezin prison, with his gangrenous right hand hanging off his arm, tied with wires... He had been spared death penalty as he was under age at the time of the trial so he received a twenty year sentence, but he did not survive the intellectual, physical and mental exhaustion much beyond four years. 

Princip (This Grave is Too Small For Me) is not a documentary or a definitive statement about historical people and events. It is not a dramaturgically flawless piece either. But having now read it I feel an urgency to share this experience, especially as it deals with a topic that concerns us all. Srbljanovic was recently invited to a panel discussion on the First World War at Vienna's Burgtheater alongside one of the descendants of the Habsburg family. Why is this kind of discussion not available to us all? Why is Srbljanovic's play not available in English? Why is it that almost no-one in the UK has heard of her work when in the 1990s Srbljanovic's name was often mentioned alongside Sarah Kane's in Germany?

But this brings me to a question which I have perpetually returned to for the twenty years of living in the UK - why is there so little interest in or awareness of any theatre work coming from the Balkans in the English-speaking world? Fifteen years ago, as I grappled with this topic as part of my PHD, I arrived at the conclusion that more often than not the work was too parochial, embroiled in its own often difficult to understand context, demanding of too much auxiliary knowledge... But there have been exceptions too. Croatian dramatist Slobodan Snajder as well as Srbljanovic have had a very successful career in Germany. Another Serbian writer Dusan Kovacevic has managed to spark some interest in the United States. My own efforts have facilitated an introduction into the English speaking world of the Serbian  playwright Ugljesa Sajtinac and some advocacy for the performance work/activism of the Croatian troupe Shadow Casters. So it is not impossible for any of this work to communicate beyond its own context. It is just such hard work for it to be heard/seen/ understood in the English-speaking world...

Vesna Goldsworthy in her book Inventing Ruritania: Imperialism of the Imagination (1998) offers a riveting analysis of the ways in which the Balkans have been colonised by the British imagination - starting from Shakespeare's Illyria, via Hope's Ruritania to Stoker's Transylvania - often as a geographically vague, mysterious and violent place. Despite some women travellers' efforts to bestow some dignity on these places - notably Edith Durham's anthropological research in Albania and Rebecca West's travelogues through Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century - by the time of the early 1990s' wars in the former Yugoslavia, all of the past stereotypes resurfaced and regained full currency once again. So why should a Serbian writer be asked to comment on the beginning of the First World War when we all know the story... Why complicate things when the public has barely even got their heads around the existing narrative already... I say this with irony but you only need to read the comments under Srecko Hotvat's article on the this week ( to see that the general discussion is not very far from that standpoint.

As it happens, Srbljanovic's play does not make huge demands on its potential audience. She distils the historical events into a five-hander 'in two parts'. The first part is quite naturalistic - the Berlin director Salehpour has even said the characters' relationships remind her of an American sitcom ( The second part can be read even as a postdramatic attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the assassination. Interestingly the main assassination we witness in this play is an accidental, unwitting, perhaps even clumsy murder of a young female bystander with whom the assassin happens to have been in love - thus generating a metaphor for the naive 'young love' idealism of the Mlada Bosna organisation to which Princip belonged. 

As I mentioned above, although captivating in its conceit and execution this is not a play which warrants translation principally on its dramaturgical merit alone - but it does have the potential to open discussion, and it's a discussion that should be had all over Europe, including the English-speaking parts. So my final question is: who wants to know what happens next?