by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage Critic Avant-garde is a French word that means you’re going to be bored or annoyed by what happens next. At least that’s the commonly held view. With your announcement that something is ‘Avant-garde’ the potential consumer generally becomes nervous, on-edge and instantly wary of what you’re peddling. Ask yourself, would you eat something billed as an ‘Avant-Garde Sandwich’? Would you want to own an ‘Avant-Garde House-Pet’? Even the most adventurous among you would probably admit to a certain amount of trepidation at the idea of using an ‘Avant-Garde Toilet’. Literally translated from French, Avant-Garde means ‘fore-guard’, or ‘advance guard’. So, in theory, the avant-garde whatever-it-is that you are about to experience is meant to be some indicator of things to come. There’s a lot of pressure that comes from that idea. Both for the creator, and for the audience to that creation. The creator sets themselves up as the messiah of the new age to come, which is a daunting position I’m sure (Look at what generally happens to Messiahs). The audience member feels pressured to like it because they don’t want to look stupid or out of touch, even though they are not likely to actually like it, because (by definition) it is not meant for our time. In simplest: the advance guard is not always welcome. After all, Napoleon had an advance-guard. Of course, in general parlance, saying something is avant-garde generally just means that it is unusual, or different to the norm. That is how it is most often used in theatre. It’s not so much a genre as a way of telling the audience that they need to adjust their expectations for what they are about to watch. So, with that in mind, we come to ‘The Hurtling Stillness’.
‘The Hurtling Stillness (or Who the F*ck Started All This?)’ is an avant-garde play from the Balkans, written by Dejan Dukovski and translated in to English by Iskra Geshovska. It is currently being performed by The WhiteListed Theatre Company at the Producer’s Club, directed by Teodor Petelov and Tihomir Andonov. The play takes the form of a series of two/three-handed scenes in which semi-archetypal characters interact with each other in a vision of dystopia, or the end of the world. It is never explicitly stated, but this is the general feeling. The characters include a bride and a one-eyed groom, a clown and a ballerina, a prostitute and her clients, and a man called ‘Dr. Phallus’. The scenes loosely play around with the themes of love, sex and angels, and the disconnect between these characters and real emotion. The text has hints of Beckett in it, the characters flirt with the ideas of Sarah Kane, and the brief movement sections of the piece are somewhere between Marcel Marceau and Pina Bausch. It’s all fairly standard avant-garde fare, but was it any good?
If you’re interested in avant-garde theatre, then I would say it’s worth a look. If you’re not interested in the avant-garde, then this play is not going to change your mind. It’s very much playing around in forms. You don’t feel that you’re watching a play, more a theatrical experiment, in a literal sense of the word. You can feel the presence of some theatrical scientist sitting behind you and taking notes on your reactions to the stimuli on stage. And what of the stimuli? Well, I was surprised at the humor in the piece. There was more than I expected. Avant-garde is often also a synonym for dour, self-important and humorless, but in ‘Stillness’ there was stuff to laugh at, and even a few out and out jokes. Kat Murphy as the prostitute ‘Lulu’ was probably the best exponent of this, playing amusingly with her male suitors. She was definitely one of the highlights of the show. Yannick Trapman-O’Brien was also very striking as a bizarrely love-deluded clown, and Ioan Ardelean was deeply unsettling as Dr. Phallus. These images are the ones that have stuck with me. That, and a feature of the set, whereby UV paint spattered on sheets resembled a galaxy, or a CSI-style blood/semen spatter during scene shifts. Nods of approval to designer John Lavigne on that note, it was quite pretty.
So, what to take away from this production? As I said, if you’re not naturally attracted to avant-garde theatre, then this is not the show for you. It is not a game-changing piece of work like ‘Waiting for Godot’ that will transcend regular audience-appeal. It is also not the ‘advance guard’ of a new generation of theatre. It is, however, a curious piece of experimental theatre, equivalent to something you would see in the reptile house at the zoo after you’ve been to see all the lions and tigers. If you like that sort of thing, go and see it. The show has an interesting way of playing with ideas and the senses. Consider that, essentially, all theatre is trying to get the audience to think and feel something. Generally this is done using the characters as a proxy for the audience, or having character’s discussions explicitly highlight the playwright’s views. In ‘Stillness’ we see people trying to convey an experience to the audience in the manner of synesthesia. What if words acted kinetically, attacking your sense of touch? What if movement on stage was used to conjure up the idea of smell? These are strange, but interesting questions that may yet yield strange and interesting fruit. And that is the niche of theatre that ‘The Hurtling Stillness’ occupies. It is not the new theatrical messiah, it is also not Napoleon, but if you like going to see something that is unusual and different to the norm, give it a look.
Tickets and info: whitelistedtheatre.com