By Mark Bolsover
A brutal, unnerving, and yet incredibly smart, wry and exhilarating borderline assault, in ‘A Modernist Event’ The Lincoln Company present a deeply intelligent and awe-inspiringly brave and committed piece of absurdist physical theatre.
Drawing on Artaud’s conception of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ (—the piece, in part, represents a new rendition of Lincoln Company’s avant garde piece, ‘Artaud: A Trilogy’), as well as on Modernist drama and poetry, at its heart ‘A Modernist Event’ represents a harsh, guttural and bitter satire on the representation of women and, more particularly on the social mores, dogmas, and stigmas surrounding feminine sexuality. Utilising a bare set, with a few pieces kitsch sixties furniture and props, the show is woven together from a number of fits, focused around this central concern.
The first of these, based on the company’s production, ‘Gas Heart’, forms a kind of parody of nineteen sixties fashion. The audience is introduced to a soundtrack of, initially, predominantly Beatles tracks, which segues into generic sixties instrumentals, uniformly well-chosen and suitable, inobtrusive accompaniments to the brief sequences of this part of the show.
The cast, immediately visible, are ranged around the space in authentic nineteen sixties period costume, in the form of psychedelic glamour model bathing suits. From the outset there is a strong element of textual self-consciousness and self-reference. The sequence takes the form of physical and dance performance and is accompanied by very slickly produced and well-executed and integrated multimedia projections which play well on silent film and Surrealist cinema traditions (with style and visual cues alluding to, amongst others, Dali’s Un Chien Andalou) and sixties film, initially featuring the cast though transitioning through the ironic appropriation of stock and—cleverly dubbed—documentary footage.
The cleverly written and performed, absurd, disjointed and fragmented dialogue plays on Modernist poetry (particularly the likes of T.S. Eliot), but also on Dada, relying for its tremendous and well-played comedic value, on repetition and the gradual decay of sense and meaning.
The show does well here to cleverly play the Modernist tone and style and sixties fashion and representations of women off against each other, the company’s smart and hilarious performances in the guise of sixties fashion models highlighting the pretensions of the former and the absurdity and crudity of the latter.
The show then transitions through a very classily produced short film featuring the cast in, which plays brilliantly on surrealist cinema and certain tropes from pornography. During the film, on stage, the cast disrobe from their sixties glamour swimming costumes, alternatively stripping down to their underwear or to knowingly crude sexual role play outfits. The audience is invited to participate in this, though it is left open to what degree this participation stretches.
From here the show descends into the sequence from which it derives its true and raw power. The sequence incorporates elements of the surrealist-mock-pornographic short in an increasingly disturbing and disturbed, feverish, almost nightmarish bacchanalia.
The cast begin to leave the stage, and to cavort amongst, and over, the members of the audience, stopping to harangue and molest them. Male members of the audience are dragged out onto the stage, and are made, mutely and involuntarily, to participate in—or, rather, are subjected to—an hysterical (in a sense veering continually between extreme humour and emotional and physical disturbance) mock-sexual assault, somehow managing to cleverly incorporate repetitive, ritualistic physical and dance performances.
Presided over by the figure of a nun almost inarticulately barking derogatory moral condemnation of female sexuality, and incorporating pornography, role play and sexual fantasy, the cast’s performances can, nonetheless, by no means be described themselves in any way as titillating or sexual. The show goes far too far, but this above all is its strength. The intelligence of the piece and of its cast is always brazenly on show here.
The show’s descent into orgiastic frenzy, and the admirably commited and really very brave performances of its cast are, at all times, clearly incredibly and intelligently controlled. Apparently highly sexualised, there is, nonetheless, nothing sexual about the performances. And this is this is, ultimately, the point. The portrayal of heavily sexualized young women, deliberately and anachronistically adopting the roles ascribed to women in pornography and sexual fantasy, while the figure of the nun loudly remonstrates against sexual license and pleads for virginity and chastity, coupled with the brute and almost animalistic performances, reveals the cruelty and violence inherent in or to these forms. And this is where grounding the show in Artaud’s concept of the ‘theatre of cruelty’ is shown to be a stroke of genius.—The discomfort, objectification, and humiliation at stake in these forms is transferred here onto the members of the audience, and in particular onto the male members of the audience brought onto the stage.
Being subjected to the continued disturbing and yet smart, controlled and hilarious assault, with its attendant discomfort, shame and humiliation, is genuinely absorbing. There is an authentic, thoroughgoing and (apparently) shared experience of ecstatic transport here—an exhilaration and a being pushed or forced over some kind of barrier or limit, with an accompanying disturbance and dilation of time, that takes some to dissipate once the show itself is over.
A smart, sharp, deeply intelligent and brilliantly designed and executed show, ‘A Modernist Event’ is a brutal, bitter, and brilliant satire on the representation of feminine sexuality, and a violent, ecstatic shock for its audience.—Very strongly recommended.
A Modernist Event is on at C South (St. Peter’s, Lutton Place), 9-10th, 12-25th August, 18.25 (1hr 15mins)