fever: disciplined mania

anna russell

Nigel Charnok, Fever

Nigel Charnok, Fever

Nigel Charnok, Fever

Nigel Charnok comes on stage with energy so fierce it’s hard to decide what’s going on. With his long legs and arms whipping out in all directions, he might be a great black stork gone crazy, or an enormous bird of prey in crisis. Soon he runs through agitated, fast-paced gestures of grabbing his crotch, slapping his neck (with cologne?) and raising his wrist to his eye as if to check the time. Perhaps an addict, desperate for sex and preparing for a date that’s bound to be disastrous? The theory is temporarily strengthened when he crams the waiting microphone into his mouth and it amplifies his gasps. By the time he swings the microphone stand crazily around his head, I’ve figured out what he reminds me of: the last, drunken guest at a brilliant party, who will simply not go home.

Charnok’s collaboration with jazz musician Michael Riessler and the Virus Quartet is a theatre work with three elements: Charnok’s words and movement, Riessler’s music and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Of the three, we get to know Shakespeare least – the sonnets are almost incidental to this one-person riot. Every so often Charnok recites one of them; usually he distracts us at the same time. Only once he admits to the power of the music on stage and removes himself: “this is really beautiful. I shouldn’t be talking. Listen to this.” He sits down in the audience half-way back. The sonnet he recites next is quiet and meaningful, in a way the others haven’t been, because we can’t see him, and he isn’t drawing our attention away.

The disciplined, rich sound of the quintet sometimes provides a middle path between Charnok’s mania and the sonnets’ formality, but it’s not always enough to stave off disorientation. Even Charnok has to remind himself to make the transition sometimes. “Oh, Shakespeare, right”, he says, after a rambling rant on Starbucks and Afghanistan. And then we’re wrenched into “O cunning love, with tears thou leaves me blind” as he hides behind the upstage blacks.

At one level, Fever is a classic introductory text to postmodernism. The work is endlessly self-aware and repeatedly deconstructed. It’s also very funny. Charnock never stops moving as he reminds us that we are an audience, although apparently we’re better than last night’s. Unlike that lot, we’re clearly “a collection of very fine, receptive, elegant human beings.” He lets us in on the music ensemble’s emotional state: “They’re all jet-lagged and I’m in a bad mood,” but assures us “it makes for great art.” Stripping down to near-nudity as the night proceeds, he runs bare-legged, sweaty and disheveled around the stage. More and more deconstructed himself, he exits and comes back on, looking at a polaroid of his own butt, to tell us it isn’t the end of the show but “we’re very near.” Then he refreshes himself from a water bottle, and spits it over the audience.

Much of the deconstructionism is applied refreshingly to modern dance. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing,” he says, striking a pose with knees braced together, one arm flung to the side. “Do you have any idea what this means?” After the show, he tells us some of modern dance is “a big con.” Certainly for much of the work he dances the way a child or a drunk might, exuberantly, with a “look what I’m doing now!” spirit to it. We might have been conned, because he makes us watch it, and he calls it art. But we’re happy for a chance not to take modern dance seriously.

The work is modular, with a mix of composed and improvised sections organized according to set cues. Charnok claimed afterward that he and the musicians “ignore each other most of the time,” but the superb clarinettist (Michael Riessler leading the quartet) watched Charnok’s every gesture closely during their duets. Charnok maintains a studied indifference to the work. “It doesn’t really matter. That’s what gives me the total freedom. It’s happening for no one and I’m not there…. I’m really not there.” His attitude can sound disrespectful – to the audience and to the work. But Shakespeare can take it. So can Riessler and so can we. Let’s hope modern dance can too. It if can’t, it’s in trouble.

Drunken party guests aren’t known for their concern for others, but they still work hard for attention. Charnok craves our gaze. He may say what he’s doing doesn’t matter, but maybe he cares more than anyone. Unlike the last, late guest who’s despoiling the furniture and taking polaroids of his body parts, I didn’t want him to leave.

28 January 2008