29 June 2010
The ram and the column of air
Author: Joe Kelleher
It wasn’t my first encounter with theatre from the Mediterranean region. It can’t have been. Not by a long shot. But it felt like a first encounter of sorts: like being confronted with something very new – new, that is, in my experience as a theatre-goer in Britain – and at the same time something very ancient. Something making a comeback. Over ages, over aeons: over historical and evolutionary periods, the time of images and biological time. But also across space: across oceans and land-masses and linguistic regions and national borders. Something that puts down roots everywhere and goes anywhere, rootless. Something that had never gone away, really. Something insisting now on its right of return, its irrefusable claim on our attention. And doing so here in the theatre. Where else indeed.
That spectatorial encounter – I shall come back to it in a moment – took place in London, at the 1999 London International Festival of Theatre. A couple of years later I was at a symposium, again in London, with a small number of London-based theatre scholars talking with the makers of this work, Italian theatre artists Romeo Castellucci and Chiara Guidi. At the symposium, in a peripatetic conversation conducted over the course of a day across several venues north of the city centre – the sound archive of the British Library, the vast and magnificent Victorian gothic hulk of the derelict St Pancras Chambers (these days being converted into penthouse apartments and a luxury hotel at the terminus of island UK’s transcontinental rail link), and a temporary theatre constructed by ever-resourceful architects Howarth Tompkins out of a Kings Cross bus depot with grass-covered turf serving for roofing and insulation – we spoke with the theatre-makers about voice.
We spoke about the ruin of voice, its dispersal and its uncanny tenacity to remain as it were in the grain of things, whether bruised onto magnetic tape or just squatting in the ear, double agent of hearing and mis-hearing, of forgetting and recognition. We spoke about play, about the play of imagination and the play of signs, about the economy of signs and the circulation of images, about childrens’ play – on stage and off – and in particular about six bunny-eared children dressed in white, playing ever so seriously with the viscera of theatrical signification as these were returned – all too literally, descending from the flies of the Sadler’s Wells main stage that same evening – to the theatre’s would-be body without organs in the ‘Auschwitz’ section of the Castelluccis’ 2001 work Genesi: from the museum of sleep. And, throughout these other topics, we spoke as well about rhetoric: the Classical ‘art of persuasion’ that lies, in one way or another – and in both senses of the word ‘lies’ – at the root of all our speech, all our sense-making, all our play.
It was this talk about rhetoric that grabbed me particularly at the time: the sort of talk I had not heard yet in the sort of theatre and performance scholarship circles where I was moving, although of course it had been there all the time. It had been there in our thinking over the past years on performativity and the vicissitudes of identity construction, identity maintenance, identity exchange and transformation; and in our reflections on the theatricalised machinery of power, its engines of interpellation and subjugation and appropriation, and the means we might develop – on stage and also in the speech we share with each other around the theatrical event – to interrupt the machinery, or turn it towards other devices. Indeed, it had been there – both rhetoric itself and the question of rhetoric so to speak – in any question we had ever raised not only to do with theatre’s function as a public art – an art indeed of making public the value, the fascination, the threat and fever of the merest thought, of a passing gesture, of an utterance, a movement, an affect – but also around what attaches to the theatre in the way of private practices: arts of memory for instance and meditation where, in the intimacy of an individual experience that we may feel we cannot share with any other person, although these experiences take place in the company of hundreds, thousands, ranged in rows in a theatre auditorium, we hear – out of ourselves as it were – the tones of a new voice being born, lent to us by the most ancient of speaking devices: the actor on stage, who bears up the word and the image of the word, suffering in the sight of others, us others, ourselves.
It is these sorts of issues – about the rhetoric of theatricality and the theatricalisation of rhetoric’s technologies of persuasion – that came to mind as I tried to think about how to respond to the invitation to address, as a Londoner – albeit one who, over the past ten years or so has devoted a fair amount of his professional energies to engaging with theatre in continental Europe, and in particular in and around the Italian peninsula – this topic of theatre in the Mediterranean, its spaces, texts and traditions. As I started to say earlier, I go back to my first encounter with the work of the Castellucci’s company, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, two years before that symposium, at a performance of Giulio Cesare, Romeo’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I offer a brief description here of the opening moments of that show, which I adapt from an account that can be found in the company’s book Epopea della polvere [Epic of dust]. It might be noted, in passing, that the description brings its own particular rhetoric to the image of the rhetorical machine as it makes its entrance on – or maybe we should say from out of – the theatrical stage:
'The audience take their places. While the houselights are still up they hear, without any forewarning, the violent sound of a whip being cracked. The houselights fade completely and in a golden light they see, in all its purity, a white curtain that is still closed. The curtain is illuminated in the centre by a spot of light – a bull’s eye – of about three metres diameter. A rhythmic and regular wave-movement begins, like a sobbing; it is caused by something pushing from behind. A large, pointed object is pushing, with the intensity and regularity of retching, of vomiting, against the flaps of the curtain that at last gives way, opening just a little to reveal what was tormenting it: a long Roman battering ram that sways its head backwards and forwards, its movement abandoned to the emphasis of the void.'
I don’t want to say too much more about this image, but rather leave it with you, the way that the theatre does, leaving it with us at the start of a show that goes on to mine a tradition of rhetorical practice that – as much as any other cultural technology – links the birth of Western civilization in the Mediterranean not only with the critical examination of civility’s structures and values through millennia of theatre history, but also with a history of politics, of democracy and contestation outside the theatre, upon the battleground of culture as such: whether we think in that respect of the machinations of the powerful, such as the aristocratic orators in Shakespeare’s play, which plots the brief life of a republic through the course of a bloody civil war, or whether we think of the rhetoricality of popular revolt, the collective articulation of free will, wherever that manifests itself – and with whatever difficulty, contingency and compromise it does so – not just in Shakespeare’s or in Roman times – but in our times too, in the places where we all are living right now.
Just to remark that what this image offers – like much else in Castellucci’s show: a performance that gives rhetorical pride of place, in the famous speech of Marc Antony, to an actor with a laryngectomy, the body of rhetorical persuasion exposed there in all its fragility, as those who have seen the show will remember well – is not just an expression of military and economic force (the battering ram is certainly that to an extent), but also that power suspended – literally – as image, as theatre image rather than as political agent: swinging in the dark, as insistent as any actor, as unconvincing as the very best, as intense and passionate and persuasive as even the worst can be.
More recently, just a couple of years ago, I came across another object, not in a theatre although it was in another art context, which I have been thinking of recently as a cousin to that battering ram: another suspended column with its own sort of mute rhetoric, although this one is in many respects the opposite of that animal-headed engine of war: this latterday object hollowed out, transparent, immobile, approachable, a thing of mixed and broken light and scrambled, muted sound, offering perhaps a different sort of engagement, a different sort of communication between the ‘stage’ where its peculiar rhetoricality holds sway and an outside towards which… I was about to say towards which it reaches, although the difference here perhaps is that this particular column of light and air and sound serves rather as a sort of receiver, to allow the outside in.
The object is a four-sided crystal tube, fifteen centimeters square and one metre long, suspended at about shoulder height to the average adult, which can still be encountered in a modern art gallery, the MADRE in the centre of Naples. Like a telescope or listening device, it pierces one of the gallery windows that gives on to a street in the Neapolitan city centre directly outside. This work, La barra d’aria [The bar of air], made in 1969 by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, is no less rhetorically presumptuous than the theatrical battering ram in the relation it appears to claim with a life beyond the theatrical proscenium, or here rather beyond the walls of the art gallery; and – in its way – it is no less ambiguous in the validity, or we might say better the clarity, of its claim. The view, when you bend down and put your eye to the tube, is multiplied, abstracted, prettified even, like the insides of a child’s kaleidoscope or a microscopic hall of mirrors. The sounds you hear from the street outside – this being Naples those are likely to be the sounds of voices raised loudly in conversation or argument and mixed in with the guttural roar of passing mopeds – are like sounds isolated from the environment from which they are born: city-life samples, no longer ‘in circulation’ as part of the generalized sonic economy, so much as delivered to the ear of the individual perceiver, like a private theatre – a theatre in which the spectator herself, as she leans down to look or to listen, herself becomes a performer for any other observer in the gallery, a theatre turned in on itself, a self-remembering theatre, an engine of perception that generates its own peculiar performances of surprised delight.
There is, of course, a tradition, sustained to a degree by travelers from outside the region, of representing the sort of space that Penone’s column of air gives onto – i.e. the southern European urban street scene, and in particular the Neapolitan street scene – as a sort of ‘theatre’ of the Mediterranean everyday. It is not a tradition by any means invented by the twentieth century German author Walter Benjamin, although it is one to which – in an essay co-written with the Latvian theatre-maker Asja Lacis – he makes a notable contribution, writing in 1924 of how buildings in the city ‘are used as a popular stage. They are all divided,’ Benjamin and Lacis go on, ‘into innumerable, simultaneously animated theaters. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stage and boxes.’ It is, as Benjamin and Lacis depict it, an ephemeral spectacle in which, however briefly, social reversals can at least be imaginatively inhabited, and where the divisions between performer and spectator are in perpetual flux, thoughbeit a flux that is sustained in part by a theatrical-rhetorical expertise that goes hand in hand with the architectonic serendipity of urban dilapidation and grinding social inequality. They write: ‘Even the most wretched pauper is sovereign in the dim, dual awareness of participating, in all his destitution, in one of the pictures of Neapolitan street life that will never return, and of enjoying in all his poverty the leisure to follow the great panorama. What is enacted,’ they continue, ‘on the staircases is an advanced school of stage management. The stairs, never entirely exposed, but still less enclosed in the gloomy box of the Nordic house, erupt fragmentarily from the buildings, make an angular turn, and disappear, only to burst out again.’
This tradition of commentary is returned to, and as it were taken forwards by contemporary British cultural theorist and Naples resident Iain Chambers who writes – in a chapter on Naples in his book Mediterranean Crossing: the Politics of an Interrupted Modernity – of ‘the street as spectacle, as simultaneously the space of a performance and a mass public’, and of how ‘the intertwining of public and private in the theatrics of street humour signals the modern wrenching away of entertainment from aristocratic clutches […] and the growth of modern urban mass culture.’ What Chambers focuses on particularly – and much of his reading is based around a commentary upon the popular mid-century Neapolitan comedian, film and theatre actor Totò – is, however, a sort of counter-rhetorical performance inherent to this urban theatre, that Chambers would take as going against the grain of any dominating or unifying rhetoricality brought to bear upon the everyday theatre as such (including the sort of romanticizing, classicizing, typifying northern European critical gaze that would construct and define the Mediterranean identity as such, as if no other gazes had ever been involved). So he writes for instance of how Totò ‘transformed the banter of the alley and the street into a metaphysics of the human condition. His hyper-intelligent dismantling of the formal pomposity of institutional oratory – both Italian and Neapolitan – carried his audience to the slippery edge of acceptable sense.’
What interests me, I suppose, in all this – something that might inform our thinking about the spaces, texts and traditions of theatre in the Mediterranean – is the role of the rhetorical tradition in the production of those spaces, texts and traditions: rhetoric, that is to say, as a means of passage between the theatrical stage and those times and places that the stage purports to speak to and to represent: involving the rhetoricality not only of the stage itself, but also the machinery of political power with which the theatre shares its genesis, and the rhetoricality of everyday activity outside the theatre, in the street and in the home and in the workplace, places where formal, public oratory – so to speak – is countermanded, appropriated, resisted, but also re-tooled and put to work. And – bearing in mind the ram and the column of air – I would want to note this also: the ways in which the theatre suspends the rhetorical engine, motionless in the bright air or swinging in the darkness of the stage. If the rhetorical speech must conjure an image in order to persuade, what then when such speech is itself presented as image, mute and attendant upon our arrival. What shall we ever say in return?
(A version of this text was recently presented at the conference 'Theatre in the Mediterranean: Spaces, Text, Traditions', Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, 4-6 June 2010)