crisis within, crisis without

jonathan marshall sees humphrey bower & paea leach

Humphrey Bower, Fyodor's Demons

Humphrey Bower, Fyodor’s Demons

Humphrey Bower, Fyodor’s Demons

PHILOSOPHERS HAVE LONG THEORISED THAT THE UNIVERSE IS A PROJECTION OF OUR SELVES. WE SENSE THE WORLD THROUGH OUR SKIN AND VIA OUR CREATIVE GAZE, REPRESENTING IT IN OUR OWN IMAGE. A CRISIS OF SELF ENGENDERS COSMIC CRISIS, AND VICE-VERSA. THEATRE MAKER HUMPHREY BOWER’S ONE MAN SHOW, FYODOR’S DEMONS, RESONATED DEEPLY WITH SUCH EXISTENTIAL PROPOSITIONS.

Collaborating with dramaturg Sophia Hall, Bower placed a confessional narrative from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Devils alongside the bleak parable of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. The former details the moral indifference of a self-interested layabout who seduces or rapes his landlord’s young daughter (Dostoyevsky’s text figures the acts as ethically indistinguishable) leading her to suicide. The second is a series of Orwellian pronouncements made by a Catholic Inquisitor who has imprisoned the reborn Christ for performing miracles outside of the Church’s authority: an aggressive justification of ruthless institutional power.

Although Bower’s pre-recorded voiceovers and performed millenarian musings on the presence of Satan in a Godless universe had little overt relation to the principal character’s story, the juxtaposition implied that each enabled the other. In a cosmically corrupt world, men have no values, while the protagonist’s behaviour created the conditions necessary for the victory of evil. This rendered Fyodor’s Demons a fable for our times of war, terror and torture, where political crisis and moral nonchalance go hand in hand. Will our leaders too come to make icons of those victims whose spectres haunt them and which can engender a tragic, ethical consciousness?

It was not however principally the text which distinguished Fyodor’s Demons, but Bower’s performance. The space was consistently portentous yet precise, a clearly demarcated area lit only by candles. A chair acted at one moment as a prop and at another as a resonant presence standing in for a figure whom Bower addressed. Opposite was a bed on which he variously lounged as though smirking at the universe, or collapsed into as though his very soul had reproached him. The actor effectively contrasted his normally relaxed, slightly doughy demeanour with moments in which almost imperceptible muscular flexion suddenly defined his body in space and in tension as his character leant back and folded his arms behind his head, smug in his cruel mastery of body and action. Like the Devil, Bower’s protagonist adopted an array of outwardly innocent masks, providing a parallel between his chosen method of theatrical exposition and the content—dealing as it did with moral deception and false, performed roles. Drawing heavily on the dramaturgy of Jacques Lecoq and Robert Draffin, and using a text which prefigured Albert Camus’ The Fall, Fyodor’s Demons was a masterwork of theatre craft.
Paea Leach, Solos Project

Paea Leach, Solos Project

Paea Leach, Solos Project

Paea Leach’s two pieces in her Solos Project similarly depicted worlds which various forms of embodied perception engender. Devised with choreographer Shannon Bott, Housework created a realm and mode of being at once playful and easy, yet one within which Leach negotiated physical and spatial obstacles. Dressed in a baggy costume adorned with planetary bodies, Leach performed on top of and around a raised, inclined cruciform structure with two arms like a broken H. An illuminated model of a house floated behind, suggesting a Surrealist conflation of object and psyche. Who was dreaming whom, the performer or the house? Fabric flapping as Leach swung her arms or bounced in a standing position on her toes, the choreography often reflected a sense of playful interaction, roughly translating as ‘We both know you are watching me perform this slightly absurd action, but I will not let on.’

In the more serious second half, Leach rapidly swapped between two poses side-on to the audience, staring straight ahead as her feet deftly crossed the gap between the set’s arms, repeatedly placing herself on the brink of a miniature precipice—after which she stepped into this void and found rest. The speed and precision of Leach’s negotiation of Alex Jack’s and Jessica Hutchinson’s set implied the empathy between one’s home environment and one’s body. This house was custom built for these feet, just as these feet were shaped by familiar space.

Sustained by a wonderfully varied radiophonic score from David Corbet incorporating static, beats and plucked, pastoral guitar, Housework offered a gentle ambience of consistent, subtle developments. This contrasted with the aggressive bodily transits and multiple, distinct sequences which made up Leach’s collaboration with choreographer Simon Ellis, Four Acts of Violence Leading Up To Now. The “violence” of the title was somewhat misleading. Certainly, the driven choreography and the representation of those states approaching exhaustion (offered both live and through close-shot projected sequences) implied physical assault. Sharp, bright sounds of inspired breath and echoes of body slaps were played back, while spoken, projected and pre-recorded text intermittently referred to scenarios suggestive of recent attacks. Nevertheless, acts of violence were not depicted or named. Like pain, violence haunted the work as an unrepresentable presence, or an upper limit for the production’s aesthetics. Four Acts was redolent with the possibility that violence had precipitated its course, yet such acts were elided.

A comment on the Four Acts website (www.skellis.net/FourActs/index.html) was apt here in identifying the passage of time itself as the traumatic “act of violence” presented. Leach’s body smashed, whirled and collapsed within a markedly horizontal space, a realm defined by the passage from left to right—or of being squashed down, from above, and into the horizontal—rather than a space of depth. Leach was constantly almost hurtling offstage into a new cinematic frame, a new time, seeking release from traumatic endurance. The richly affective dramaturgy of Four Acts demanded one read through it, beyond suggestions of the representation of emotions or even ideas present within the work itself, and instead look for those absences and boundaries of what one witnessed on stage, transcending to some degree the experience of watching the show itself.

If Fyodor’s Demons and Housework offered worlds projected by bodies and individuals, Four Acts represented a thoughtful dissolution of body and presence through what was nevertheless a highly kinaesthetic experience.

Fyodor’s Demons, performer, devisor Humphrey Bower, designer Clair Whitley, lighting designer Nick Higgins, composer, painter Jess Ipkendanz, dramaturg, adaptor Sophia Hall; Blue Room, Oct 26-Nov 18; The Solos Project, co-devisor Paea Leach; Housework choreographer Shannon Bott, composer, projections, co-devisor David Corbet; Four Acts of Violence Heading Up to Now, co-devisor, choreographer Simon Ellis; designers Alex Jack, Jessica Hutchinson, costume Paula Lewis, lighting Richard Vabre; Bakery Artrage, Perth, Oct 27-Nov 3

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 33

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006