Friday, 19 October 2018

The Question in Bodies, parenthesis: April (2018)

I'm not really experienced in writing about theatre, especially the sort of theatre that hinges on you not knowing the ending, that depends upon a transformative revelation. While spoiling the twist of a movie is often not a deal breaker, the twist in a theatrical performance, which is still a one-time personal event in a way that a TV show or a movie cannot be in 2018, is sacred. I remember that episode of Toast of London where Steven Toast is on the radio being interviewed about being in a Famous Long Running Mystery Play, and blithely gives away the ending without even realising he's done it, and it's funnier if you know how hard theatre people try to keep stuff like that under wraps.

When Hermetic Arts – Carrie Marx and Chris Lincé – produced Unburied earlier this year, more than one person who saw it quipped on social media about the one big rug pull of the show, which is understandable, because it's a really great, brutal rug pull, but also a literal spoiler, in that it only works if you don't know about it, because otherwise you're ready to jump at any point to avoid the yank of the rug from under your feet, and that doesn't just spoil the twist, it unbalances the whole play, because you're so busy waiting for the sudden movement of the carpet, you're engaging with everything else with suspicion and that damages the experience of the show.

So, in writing about Hermetic Arts’ new show, April, I have to be really careful in ways that I'm not used to be. I was invited to see it by Carrie and Chris, and went down to London for its first performance this last Sunday (the second performance is this Sunday, 21st October, at the Old Red Lion, Islington, as part of the London Horror Festival).

Carrie plays April, a ghastly and vapid New Age positivity guru with a YouTube channel, a figure somewhere halfway between Poppy and Teal Swan, and the show is framed as a live seminar; there's some hilariously awkward audience participation involved.

It's not a spoiler to remind you that the show is part of the London Horror Festival, and that in some way, horror will intrude. And throughout the show, April raises and thwarts the audience's expectations as to how this will turn into a horror story, and where it goes in the end is unexpected and horrifying, painful and tragic.

April repeatedly says to the audience, “The body is weak,” and her work is to find a solution, an escape to that through positive thinking. And the absurdity of some of her tactics (and some of her inspirations – there's a pop culture figure who you'll not think of the same way again) both obscures the tragic horror at the heart of it, and makes it all that much worse. The body is in fact central to our identity, and things that affect our physical makeup change who we are. The body is weak, but the body is integral to who we are. Poppy, referenced at the beginning apparently for laughs, is more of an influence on April than she might originally appear, and the horror of Poppy and the horror of April travel in parallel directions.

And I'd love to unpack that further. But I don't think it would be fair. So to summarise, the body is weak, and we are our bodies, and the self is a whole, and fractures of the body and fractures of the spirit are more interlinked than we might care to believe. And the solutions or shortcuts that are supposed to circumvent the traumas we routinely face in the business of living can have seductively horrible consequences. And April is about that.

I saw the first performance, and I admit that it had some rough edges, and parts that didn't quite hang together as tightly as they could have. But another thing about theatre is that it's fluid. No two performances are the same, because in the theatre, the audience participates, and because that conversation between performer and audience allows for refinement of the performance.

I enjoyed April, because it's exactly the sort of identity horror I respond to. But if you go on Sunday, and I'd recommend you do if the idea of identity horror intrigues you, you won't see the exact show I did. There's something intriguing in that. I can't tell you all the secrets of a thing that you can't experience in the same way that I did. You won't see the show I did. But I still can't tell you. Horror theatre is a theatre of secrets, but the secrets you'll learn are your own.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #20: It Mattered to That One

Evolution (2015)

(This post comes with a content warning for discussion of child abuse. As usual, spoilers abound.)

You've probably heard some variation of the inspirational fable about the little boy who's walking along this beach that's covered with washed up starfish, and every so often he stoops over and picks one up and chucks it back into the sea, and some adult comes up and says, in the way that adults only ever talk to kids in inspirational fables, “What are you doing, kid? There are too many starfish here to save! How does it matter?” And the punchline comes when the kid picks up another one, throws it into the sea, and says, “It mattered to that one.”

Which makes a powerful and important philosophical point about the value of small kindnesses. I like that one. It's one of my favourites. I've used it myself more than once.

And of course, as is the case with all the best parables, which are by nature improbable, it is flawed if taken strictly literally as a narrative. Because of course, it didn't matter to the starfish, because starfish are utterly alien. There's no brain in a starfish, just a collection of nerves and ganglia spread out among its arms, and around its mouth, so that even if you could ascribe the thing with consciousness, it's not a unity, but a collection of joined and sometimes competing consciousnesses that grow and sometimes split, and regenerate lost components of the gestalt. The experience of a starfish is probably impossible to imagine.

I wonder if Lucile Hadžihalilović had this story in mind when making Evolution. The starfish, both in terms of its alienness and the value of throwing one back, is the thematic image that defines the film.

Monday, 8 October 2018

We Don't Go Back #89: I go to sleep before closing my eyes

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) (1970)

Because I touched upon most of the Important Films quite early in this project, when I didn't know what I was doing with it, I feel I gave some of them short shrift. Which is why I gave The Witch, Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General second goes. My original piece about Valerie was quite good, I thought (it has one glaring error in it, which is going to be fixed in a second edition, though), since it was almost as oblique as the film. In many ways that piece on Valerie was the first one where I thought, actually, you can do something more interesting than just say whether you liked it. But still, I reckon Valerie deserves more. Valerie will always deserve more.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #19: I Keep Thinking About Iwona Petry

Szamanka (1996)

All of this is preamble: Szamanka is a film that hasn't been given a certificate by the BBFC. I don't know why. It might simply be that a distributor never took it up over here rather than the BBFC refusing to classify it, for example. But it is quite an extreme film, and it features a lot of graphic – not pornographic, mind – sex. It's consequently quite a hard film to find in the UK, at any rate. And it's not a cheap one. I will nonetheless be giving away plot points, because this isn't, as usual, a review, but you shouldn't feel you can't read this if you haven't seen it. In fact, I went and sourced a copy of Szamanka after having read Kier-La Janisse’s equally spoilery analysis in House of Psychotic Women, which is a book I cannot recommend highly enough, and which made me really, really want to see the film in the first place, spoilers and all.

If you're in the UK, your chance of having seen Szamanka is pretty small anyway. Which is all by way of an unapologetic acknowledgement that yes, there are spoilers, but since it's hard to find, don't worry about that, and anyway, it's such a delirious film that even having spoilers doesn't really make a difference, and anyway, I might convince you that you have quite good reason not to want to see it. Regular readers will know that this is a The Question in Bodies post, so the usual warnings about discussions of trauma, abuse, sex, consent and that stuff apply. You don't need a post about a film you haven't seen ruin your day, so if you think it might be distressing, stay away.

After the cut, I'll begin.