For reasons too bizarre to explain, I have attended three performances of Shakespeare plays that have been spoken in a language I have not understood. I now make that four. This abstract, largely silent interpretation of As You Like It ( a Shakespeare comedy I have never seen danced before) was so unintelligible that I might as well have been hearing it spoken in Urdu.
Before Shakespeare, there was Brian Eno. After a long period of nothingness, his obscure song Golden Hours was played repetitively for almost twenty minutes (four and a bit times, if I recall correctly). It has a strangely monotonous, yet catchy, effect; hooking you into Eno’s psychedelic lyrics, his vocal pattern seemingly rising and falling in musical scales, before the fluid guitar riff takes over.
Eleven dancers appeared from the door at the back of the bare, unadorned stage and slowly, so slowly, they stepped forward, in a group layered into three lines, moving so imperceptibly that the whole song comes and goes before they have made it downstage. Its like a stylised opening to a Channel 4 teenage drama: they’re attired just as any group of young people gathered outside the doors of Sadler’s Wells might be dressed. The array of colourful and stripey trainers suggested that their collective footwear might have cost more than the rest of the costume and set design put together. The fact of three people being credited for these costumes seemed excessive (perhaps six hands were needed to carry the bags from TK Maxx).
It turned out, however, that this Golden Hours part of the theatrical experience was no more than akin to an overture. Helping the audience to this conclusion was the fact that it was soon followed by an “Act I” projected onto the back stage. Throughout the next two hours, we were kept on track in terms of mapping the action against Shakespeare’s narrative by snatches of text and a periodic reminder that we had now flipped into Acts 2, 3, 4 and 5. Apart from reminding us that As You Like It is the source of the “All the World’s a Stage, and all the men and women merely players” quotation, the text did little to mediate an understanding of the contemporaneous activity on stage (quite a bit of action also happened in the aisles).
I have no doubt that this production is A-starred clever. I suspect that it could happily reward several researchers’ postgraduate studies (their love’s labours would not be lost). From time-to-time the brilliance even hit me between the eyes: such as the sudden realisation that Rosalind was being performed by a long-haired guy (Aron Blom) with a fresh-faced androgyny and that this worked in the sense of the character’s cross-dressing disguise. It took me a while to realise that the snatches of guitar music being played by Carlos Garbin related back to the “overture”. The fact of lovers confirming their lust with a peculiar take on French-kissing by blowing cigarette smoke down each other’s throats was another small moment of amusing revelation. But, for me at any rate, such moments of insight or comedy were too few and far between.
Part of my failure to access the dramatic intentions for much of the work lay in not being able to engage with the performers. To be blunt, having watched them for two hours I doubt if I could have picked more than three of the eleven from an identity parade, since the majority made such little impact on me. I would more likely have recognised their trainers on a store shelf. Perhaps it was another deliberate act of deconstruction but – while they seemed to be acting out situations (a wrestling match, a love affair) – there appeared to be little or no sense of theatre or characterisation.
The idea of the dancers having absorbed their lines so thoroughly as to be able to mime them in movement is a fascinating concept. At times, we could see their lips moving even if we couldn’t hear the words. “My talking is my dancing”, de Keersmaeker has said, and this has developed into breathing and walking also being her dancing; as well as dancing becoming her music, since much of this work is performed solely to the sound of its own activity. I can see the intellectual challenge for an enquiring mind (potential PhD students might already be forming the queue) and there is certainly an academic stimulus to the multiple crossings-over between text, movement and sound. But, it isn’t entertainment.
Eno’s Golden Hours clearly had a powerful impact upon de Keersmaeker and that opening sequence of slow movement to this hypnotic 4-minute track ended up being the best part of the evening. The rest of the production was so perplexingly incoherent that it absorbed my unbroken concentration, which has to be a plus for more than two hours of dance, although they were far from being golden.