Monday, February 28, 2011

Andrew Fuhrmann's Review

Andrew Fuhrmann's review:


No Show, by Richard Pettifer (excp. Megan Twycross)
@ La Mama
Wed. 9 Feb. 2011 to Sun. 13 Feb. 2011

however close our touch
or intimate our speech,
silences, spaces reach
most deep, and will not close.

– “Space Between”, Judith Wright

Well, what started as a quick review to get me back into the blogging habit somehow ballooned into something quite else. So, I might break this one down into two separate posts. The second should follow tomorrow.

No Show is an absorbing one man piece from director Richard Pettifer in which he ruminates, reminisces and in an important emotional sense dramatises upon the cancellation of Smudged, a play by Megan Twycross that he directed in a preview run late last year and which had been booked for a full run at La Mama before, so to speak, it “fell over and couldn’t get up” some few weeks ago. Brief scenes of Smudged are interpolated through the progress of No Show with Richard performing all various characters.

In the program for No Show, Pettifer writes: “This is a play about failure, which is normally private. No-one really talks about failure, except to get sympathy.”

There are two interesting things here: the first is that one of the several arguments which Smudged had, or has, in its loose orbit is the notion that failure is not, any longer, as a cultural convention, a private matter. Part of what happens to the protagonist Paul, in the carnival-esque rout of his identity, is that he loses the right to fail in private. In holding Smudged up to the broken mirror of No Show, I think one of the really interesting things that Pettifer is doing is finding a new way of framing that same theme, framing it really through a more specific and self-conscious enactment of public failure.

Smudged seems to me a play that seeks, in a na├»ve sort of way, to track the collapse of individuality beneath a techno-cultural paradigm that demands endless reiterations of the self’s independence across all the various media that appear superficially to characterise the present, like, you know, facebook and such.

Out of the failure, the ruin of Smudged, No Show recovers and gives a new personal and emotional shape to this earlier theme, the theme of the failed self, finding in the experience of trying to stage a play, of trying to give artistic expression to a sense of failure, a poignant symbolism: an eye relentlessly looking in upon its self, focused tightly upon the frail subject, shrinking in its dark skull. As Richard writes in his program notes: “It was really scary rehearsing at La Mama alone in the dark.”

No Show is a quieter, darker play than the twitchy Smudged, dominated by silences, shadows and empty costumes. It is a play about the failure of a play about failure, which, granting the common denominator, makes this a performance of the failure of failure, something I’ll come back to in a further on.

The second interesting thing about his introductory remark is that I think it’s wrong. I think, actually, that failure is talked about all the time. I feel as though failure has been co-opted into the cult, or cults, of self improvement. I feel like failure has now, backed by pocketbooks full of platitudinous mantras, become in some awful new-age Heideggerian sense a valid life project. Failure in such a cult or cults seems to me as grinningly repulsive as success. These are neither of them true successes or failures: they are the liberation of authentic mediocrity.

For the moment, I’ll blame Beckett. I would gladly go many a day without hearing the chirpy “fail better” or “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. I mean, seriously, Fail Better was in bookstores for Christmas.

But in that context, one of the absorbing qualities of No Show is its resistance to the platitudes of failure. This is no “boats against the current” celebration of human spirit, it is something more directly emotional.

I’ve mentioned emotion a couple of times. I could have said honesty. I could have said emotional honesty. There are many emotions at work in this play—yearning, nostalgia, ennui—but the key emotion seems to be disappointment, or, more authoritatively, frustration.

This, this honest and absorbing sense of frustration, is what distinguishes No Show from its immediate inspiration, Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular. The basic structure of both shows is the same. There is a facile conceit where the audience turns up expecting a spectacular (although, of course they don’t do anything of the sort), whereat an apologetic man announces the cancellation and describes what the show would have been like. In place of frustration, however, the governing energy in Spectacular is that of boredom. Forced Entertainment deliberately sets out to tax the audience’s expectations with a postdramatic lesson. What they don’t do is expose this political lesson to the practical critique of emotional investment. I.e. No one cared about the stupid show anyway.

But then, Forced Entertainment was in no position to make such a concession. How could they? Their show was fundamentally a fake.

There is a new book out by Sara Bailes called Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure. It’s an interesting and informative book about some interesting international companies, but it is an especially irritating book where it insists on the revolutionary power of failure. There’s a fake humility about such posturing. Perhaps it’s the politics of the posture that gives it the fake seeming; or perhaps it is its closeness to the platitudinous degree of failure complained of above. At any rate, it’s the same fakeness, I think, which is at work in Spectacular. (Forced Entertainment is one of the companies discussed in the book).

To say that this or that performance has authenticity, that is based on real events, is not my point. It’s not the fact that there was a real play called Smudged that makes the difference. The performance is still contrived, either way. It’s more that this character before us, this Pettifer-masque, spoke with a special authority, whether assumed by cunning art or learned by real experience, or some combination, is not the point. The point is, it was authoritative. I speak with the authority of failure, as F Scott Fitzgerald says.

Spectacular has no such authority. Patently, because it is a spectacular in a completely un-ironic sense: a world-famous built-to-tour spectacular from a company that has built a very successful method on “failure”. There is no authority in that, in their smug assurance. It is no real failure.


Okay, it’s part two, and I think I’m going to walk back a little on the last paragraph of part one where I claimed that Spectacular had no authority to speak about failure on account of its success.

The smugness I complain of in Spectacular relates not to box office success, nor to the fact that it has toured extensively, but rather to its internal aesthetic disposition. It just seems too clever, like it has all the answers worked out for itself and therefore doesn’t need to commune with us, the audience. It can afford failure because nothing is at stake.

What does it have the answers to? Coming back to Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, the problem is that of representation: the failure of representation as a mode of expression in the theatre. I think it’s fair to say that this dilemma has been a defining one for theatre over the last twenty plus years. According to Bailes, what a company like Forced Entertainment is doing in a show like Spectacular is “transcending” the dilemma. They refuse to engage in the problem of “performance as representation”. To put it another way, they refuse the project of naturalism.

If you know the book (they have it at Uni Melb and the SLV), or the company, you might think that to say “refuse” is a bit harsh, if not an outright distortion. After all, Forced Entertainment did a really great job of defending their show in the program to Spectacular (I would have been happy to take the program and skip the show), and Bailes herself writes with respect to FE:

“the theatre artist … greets the dilemma of representational failure with an eye to confronting it and restructuring that most provisional of exchanges in order that its innate precariousness will not so much haunt it as to be conscious.”

So, like, this postdramatic metatheatrical method is all about confrontation and re-configuring audience expectations of theatrical expression. And, sure, there may be some postdramatic metatheatrical methodologies out there that effect this or are working to effect this. But shows like Spectacular (and to a much lesser extent Pettifer’s version of Twycross’s Smudged), performances where the so-called “poetics of failure” are employed, do not confront anything at all. They sidestep it.

The “poetics of failure” seems to me, in an example like Spectacular, more like an avoidance of failure—an avoidance bought at the cost of boredom.

I think the problem is that failure-based theatre seeks, in Bailes’ words, to rehearse Beckett’s directive to “fail better” without the catastrophe of failure’s event. She posits this as a creative advantage; I rather think that it requires treating theatre as though failure didn’t matter. If there is no catastrophe at stake, then what is the point? What makes theatre matter? Sure, you don’t want anyone’s life to literally be on the line, I guess, but without risking real failure, catastrophic failure, how do you rise above the level of “mere entertainment”? I think that the poetics of failure are no way at all to make things matter. Failure fails to make anything matter. But, ah, the failure of failure: there may be something in that.

During No Show, Pettifer describes some of his directorial ideas for Smudged. He presents himself as having naively believed that failure works. He talks with a sort of wistful sadness about “disrupting the continuity of traditional narrative forms” with metatheatrical interventions confronting the “objective-based” mainstream capitalist ideology. But via the cheerless mood of No Show, we see that failure has failed his ambition. Pettifer and the collective responsible for putting together Smudged were unwilling to sufficiently abstract the story of Paul’s failure of self, to entirely abandon the ambition of emotional communication, to admit boredom, which is the true method of postmodern theatre, being as it is so shy of expressions generally. And so, according to Richard, for that unwillingness, Smudged fell over.

For me, such a choice—between depressingly abject failures like Spectacular and Smudged–inspires a retreat from these quasi-philosophical, quasi-mystical ideas about the poetics of failure toward maybe framing failure more as a purely aesthetic problem: something like the modernist notion failure as a problem of formal ingenuity, or the lyrical notion of failure as the impossibility of emotional fulfillment, as in Housman’s “remorseful day”.

But such a reduction–such a retreat–only leads to a torpid sort of nostalgia: “I often wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat and rain. Vim under the sink. And both bars on. But old now… old. There can be no true beauty without decay.”

No Show does have several quiet, beautiful moments of nostalgic reverie. But it would be wrong, I think, to see it as reactionary. Punctuating the nostalgia, deflating it, is a consistent sense of frustration, which brings us back to where I began in distinguishing No Show from Spectacular in part one of this extravagent review. So we see here then that frustration is not only an energy that resists the hollowness of the postmodern embrace of failure, but that it also resists the the a complete, deathly resignation to nostalgia.

It’s interesting with this in mind to compare how No Show and Spectacular employ the conceit of the last-minute cancellation. Spectacular, of course, being the more abstract and structural creation, persists with it throughout the performance. In No Show, the idea is swiftly done away with, dropped by the wayside as a mere hindrance, giving way to the more pressing need to communicate directly with the audience this sense of frustration, another neat, internal demonstration of the uselessness of failure.

I’ll leave it at that. In short, I’ve been saying, on the back of No Show, that perhaps the best way to give vent to the feeling of failure that is so much inherent in contemporary life, and especially in the work of contemporary artistic production, is not necessarily to embrace failure as a technique or poetics. While I don’t say that failure as a technique (or poetics) can never produce impressive experiential art, I would say that it can run into (a) platitude, regarding the universality of failure, and (b) arrogance, regarding the didactic content of metatheatrical gestures. Equally dissatisfactory is the tendency to submit to failure through nostalgic reminiscence, which would be to resign oneself to art-as-mere-entertainment. I think the “central” course sailed by No Show between these two responses to failure is authentically achieved through the animating energy of, lets say, one of angst, disappointment or frustration.

No Show is an elegy, wrought with nostalgia, yearnings and pretty reminiscencses. It is postmodern, emerging from a performance tradition more than ever consumed with the problem of representation. But it is an elegy and a performance experiment founded on a kind of primal anger, through which some sort of revolutionary potential is realised."

An extensive response to my own musings on failure, and much better read (if less personal).