Last night, Adam Spreadbury-Maher kindly invited me to see ‘Dead Party Animals’ at the Hope Theatre which, as their website states, is a monologue told by a young man falling in and out of clubs and love on a typical night out in every city in England. As he struggles to handle his increasingly drunk mates, events spiral surreally out of control and his past comes back to haunt and accuse him’. Since 2010 Adam has been the artistic director of the King’s Head theatre. His Wikipedia page is a cornucopia of words such as ‘award winning’, ‘leadership’, ‘making accessible the inaccessible’, ‘the future’, etc. Having said this, there is something very institutional in the inversion of low over high that this project seems to embody. In other words, this play presents itself to the audience as the opposite of what it is and the needed collapse between form and content never really happens.
As a piece of writing the piece is poetic to the point of the melodic. Written and starred by Thomas Pickles ‘winner of the inaugural Adrian Pagan Award and theatre’s most original new voice’, Dead Party animals is part of the (I would say, global) literary efforts to naturalise the inversion of low over high that has characterised ‘young poetry’ for the past fifteen years. By ‘young poetry’ I am referring to that one that allegorises the literal through its ennunciative pace. Thus, the pedestrian aspects of daily life become ‘the beautiful’ as in that scene in the film American Beauty where the bin bag danced as the epitomisation of Kantian aesthetics. The problem with this is that it contains a reaffirmation of the order of ‘the beautiful’ which, in a way, undoes the substantial requirement for that inversion of low over high to happen. In other words, one cannot be punk and mainstream at the same time. One can be poor and sound rich but it will come across as contrived and, somehow, grandiose.
It is that cornice that Pickles attempts to tread when saying: ’There’s a crab hanging on to the DJ’s headphones. People are dancing in slow motion, treading water. Imogen’s wearing arm bands. A bottle of Smirnoff bobs past my head’. Surprisingly, the critics answered: “Lyrically beautiful, raw, rough and dirty… a fantastically honest one-man play… Pickles holds the audience in the palm of his hand” (Camden Review). It is true that Pickles is a force to reckon with as an actor but as a play writer there issues that might be mentioned.
My problem with this play lies in the formal split between form and content or, in other words, between that naturalisation of the literal (and its logical ‘downward’ drive) and the ‘theatricalisation’ of the poetic (and its moving ‘upwards’). In fact, before the play started, its director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher told me that he was interested in the ‘poor’ but which he meant ‘fringe theatre’. I asked him what he meant by it and he said that he liked the interaction between the audience and the actors. There is no connection, however, between a very proficient Pickles and the audience and that hiatus increases with the ongoing theatricalisation (understood as lyrical) of daily life through the deployment of the antics of high theatre. In his search of form, Pickles sounds like Racine or Moliere at times. His character sounds like Hamlet but has no existential problems to balance the tragic. He speaks low English but the tone of the play is high all the way. Eventhough Pickles held my attention for 45 minutes (which is a very difficult thing to do), he did never move me. He actually held my attention through the formal and that, my friends is called, mannerism.
So after the play I joined director and friends for dinner and to my surprise, I got the same sense of detachment from other young theatre people that I had met. There is something polite and automatic about them that reminds me of the malaise of the contemporary art world. I wonder whether that ‘detachment’ is the price that young artist have to pay to exist in such a corporate world. It is symptomatic that the world of art (and theatre) have become places of politeness and rhetorical detachment where life is discussed in terms of the appropriate. . It does not come as a surprise that performance art at the New Museum or MOMA seems desperate to condense what is left of the authentic as a ready made object. I couldn’t help to notice The Hope Theatre’s efforts to turn the space into a black cube. Is the black cube of the theatre the counterpart of the white cube of the art gallery? And most importantly, is expression also going to be swallowed by concept (or sheer mannerism)? If the young ones stopped trying to connect, we have a serious problem. Just a thought.
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