Fabre and the anxiety of formlessness

Richard Murphet

I Am Blood

I Am Blood

I Am Blood

I Am Blood has 2 dramaturgs listed in its credits. It is curious this fascination with and increasing dependence upon the dramaturg over the past couple of decades. These dramatic architects, these advisers and guides in the architectonics of theatre: the systematic arrangement of knowledge. With the unities of time, place and action, with the hero’s journey from unknowing to experience via the monster’s cave, with the lineal chain of cause and effect to anagnorisis and perepeteia etc etc, there was/is an underlying arrangement of experience, so that the various stories laid upon the top produced variations upon old (and deeply resonant) themes of individual and personal (re)organisation. Not so with so many contemporary performances: Teshigawara’s I Was Real: Documents, Needcompany’s Snakesong, Castelluci’s Giulio Cesare and Genesis, to mention only some of those that I have written about for RealTime over the past few years. And now the ‘anxiety of formlessness’ caused by Jan Fabre’s I Am Blood. They are not easy to absorb. They are impossible to fit into any recognisable structure. They feel carefully fashioned but without any underlying form; and maybe (horror!) this equates to surface without soul.

The Age reviewer Hilary Crampton concluded her review: “As Art, the work fails, because it lacks any sense of selectivity, of form and structure, resulting in an indulgent presentation…” Neil Jillett in the Sunday Age dismissed it as “a spectacular display of chaotic nastiness…poorly choreographed…a bloody shambles.” (Interesting that the word ‘shambles’ which, figuratively, has come to mean “a mess, a muddle”, was originally the word for “a butcher’s market-stall, a flesh market, a slaughterhouse.” Jillett’s description was more apt than perhaps he realised.) For many of my friends and fellow artists it was a ‘mess’, ‘studentish’, ‘obvious’, ‘lacking directorial control’ etc. There’s something going on here, some kind of extreme concern. Hence my term ‘anxiety of formlessness’ to describe the effect it has caused. And I’m not saying I was immune to it: alternately enthralled, confused, thinking I understood it, bored, excited and shocked etc.

Fabre’s show in 1984 was called The Power of Theatrical Madness—in that title he stated a mission which he still adheres to. Hans-Thies Lehmann describes it thus: “Theatre was and is searching for and constructing spaces and discourses liberated as far as possible from the restraints of goals (telos), hierarchy and causal logic. This search may terminate in scenic poems, meandering narration, fragmentation and other procedures…on the borderline of logic and reason.” (Performance Research, Spring 1997). Fabre is also a visual artist: a sculptor, graphic artist, installation artist and video maker. The pressure of the experimentation in the visual arts pushing against the tenacious borders of theatre can be felt in I Am Blood.

The beetle has been a fascination of Fabre’s for many years, in art and theatre. Beetles wear their skeleton on the outside. It is their defence against the penetration of the flesh. Near the beginning of I Am Blood a chorus of men in armour dance a mock chorus line number while one in their midst spins out into a crazed ‘structureless’ sequence in which armour and sword are no longer defences but potential for self-damage. On reflection, the show seems as much as anything to be a meditation upon the act of shedding and covering. The bodies cover themselves with armour, wedding dresses, ordinary clothes, only to take them off again and again revealing the vulnerable flesh (and blood) underneath. Suction cups are placed on the body, only to fall shattering on the floor, the shards swept up presumably to protect bare feet. More metaphorically, steel tables are alternately used as platforms for human display and surgical benches for bodily desecration. I think of the jeeps and tanks and helicopters in Iraq, supposedly providing armoured protection to the ‘invulnerable’ US troops, but ripped away increasingly by bombs and missiles to expose the flesh of the soldiers underneath. We are still kidding ourselves like beetles do. We are still medieval.

The ultimate protection, of course, is the word, which can justify and sanctify and give a sense of order to every mad thing we do to one another—in the name of the father. The show begins with 2 figures sharing the stage. One is the fearless, mainly naked, seemingly sexless, curly-headed contortionist who is witness to all the theatrical madness that proceeds, who attempts to send it all up, and who ends with his nakedness covered in feathers. The other is the woman with the book on her head. She is the word provider throughout the play. It is she whom we first see and she ends the show as she began it, parading around the stage, confronting us, the book as both weight to carry and armour against whatever may drop from above.

Paradoxically, whilst it resists the recognisable forms of dramatic progression, I Am Blood is made up of images and sequences of exquisite formality, set against sequences of seeming chaos. It is in the progression from one to another that the rationality—the ability to make meaning of it all—breaks down. Lehmann has called this “the aesthetics of poison”: “An image of beauty, craving and desire is presented, but with the addition of a disturbing element, a vivid poisonous green tinge of colour…(which) spoils my enjoyment, while at the same time stimulating it to reach a different level of reflection.” How to reach that level is the challenge these works of ‘mere anarchy’ place upon us.

I Am Blood, writer, director, choreographer, Jan Fabre, Melbourne Festival, Oct 9-25

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 5

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003