Friday, 21 October 2011

the end of the world, or else the beginning

[I should have posted this weeks ago. Huge apologies to Chris Goode for the delay, and even bigger thanks to everyone involved in this project for having me along for the ride.]

Let's play a game. You're a child and the time is December, a little before Christmas, in those unthinkable days before Amazon. Your mother needs to buy presents for your cousins. You go with her to the toy shop, but you're not allowed to touch anything, only trail after her and look, look, look. You know you're going to get presents yourself, and as you watch your mother fill her basket you try to guess what those gifts might be, how your Christmas might take shape. Imagine the excitement, the impatience, the moments of boredom, the shivers of wonder...

… and before you know it, you'll have daydreamed yourself into Chris Goode's rehearsal room for the Cendrars project.

A form of this toyshop analogy blurted from me on my first day in the room, sitting in a circle with Chris and the three performers – Jamie Wood, Gemma Brockis, Clive Mendus – for the morning check-in. Every day working with Chris starts like this: you sit together and ask, how are you? You can answer that blandly: I'm OK, everything's fine. But really Chris is inviting us to pause and acknowledge the baggage we're bringing in from the outside world, how it's affecting us and how it might colour our thinking during the day. Within that is a silent invitation, for each of us to take up a little of everyone else's baggage and help to shift it to the side of the room. It's a way of putting down guards, opening arms, entering each other's orbit.

What I brought into the room that day was more than a little apprehension and an effervescing curiosity. As if I didn't feel enough like a child already, one of Chris's first actions on my arrival was to pass me a lump of sticky red goo and a thick plastic straw and challenge me to blow up a balloon. There's quite a lot of goo in the writings of Blaise Cendrars: “the sun drools” in The End of the World; an exquisite line in The Eubage runs, “Life effectively, manifestly, and formally is space and time, sublimated, molten, perfumed. Honey.” Even so, why I might be sitting in the basement beneath Camden People's Theatre inflating an approximation of a sheep's stomach lining felt faintly mysterious to me.

I hadn't heard of Cendrars before Chris emailed about the project; I get the impression I'm not the only one. There was homework to do before joining rehearsals: biographical material and key texts to read, assorted musics to respond to. The biography is fascinating: as his pseudonym suggests, Cendrars took a phoenix approach to the living and telling of his life, torching his existence, rewriting with the ashes, torching them anew. I could easily imagine someone staging these multiple stories, but not Chris somehow.

There were tantalising hints of narrative in the music Chris collated: I'll Read You a Story by Colleen sounded gloopy and glassy, secretive and ominous, and filled my head with twinkling stars; Messiaen's Jardin du Sommeil d'Amour scans those stars romantically, savouring their mystery. The second movement of Ligeti's Violin Concerto conjured up alien voices that became unnerving and cacophonous in Giles Swayne's Void-Light-Darkness. Honegger's Pacific 231 is more menacing still, exploding and spiralling as though trapped in a war of the worlds.

When I started reading Cendrars himself (The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame; The Eubage, or At the Antipodes of Unity; and two translations of The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France), all the ideas and images suggested by the music were there in print, in his queasily strange, headily beautiful grapplings with science, the galaxy, molecules, God; with the radiance, the horror, the incomprehensibility of being. I could see the connections, yet – that childishness again – couldn't fathom what they might mean, what Chris might be planning to put on stage.

The texts, of course. As a hint of how defiantly unstageable they are, here is section 39 of The End of the World:

It rains. It rains. The water rises. The needles of the conifers ramify, their tips flatten, they open out into umbels. Fungi grow on all the branches, floating with the current. Algae, yeasts, black sponges. Debris of all kinds accumulate at the bottom of the lakes. Plesiosauria in decomposition.

And here's a little of The Eubage:

In the river of Time which flows in Space, lazy trout can be glimpsed among the luxuriant grasses. The water is clear, the current limpid. At the bottom, among the ultraviolet and infrared rays of decomposed light, we can see the foaming of the odomagnetic gems that make up the aeroliths. Metals, rocks and roots, grasses and all the leaves are rich with their own life. The vegetation is audacious.

The task Chris set himself with this project was to create a theatre as evocative, multi-textured, elemental, tactile, as Cendrars' writing: a theatre, as he described it in the rehearsal room, of materials – light, colour, sound, even smell – to which human activity plays a supporting role. Audacious, indeed.

But possible, thanks in part to an enticing bit of Heath Robinson gadgetry idling in a corner of the rehearsal room. The invention of puppeteer and theatre-maker Mervyn Millar, it has an aged Singer sewing-machine table for its base; on top of that a turntable; above that are suspended two perspex sheets; finally a light source and video camera trained on the lot. Mervyn uses this contraption to create live projected animation, both moving images (of objects placed on the whirring turntable) and multi-layered still images (objects placed on the perspex sheets), which also shift beneath his hands. Mervyn, then, could show us “jumbled constellations” and “the enormous hybrid butterfly of the Summit of the Hours whose wings are isochronal”; he could make “all the cities in the world rise on the horizon” and “the mountains of Mexico stumble in the light”. The materials he used were simple enough: a bitter gourd and a scotch egg, star confetti and fake fur, turmeric and a tube of honey. But in performance, the light, the projecting and Mervyn's absorbed manipulations transformed them into eerie visions, glowing and alive.

Watching Mervyn rustle up these animations, you could see how easy it might be to film Cendrars' texts: indeed, The End of the World is written as though describing a film, one that spools crazily through disaster, then rewinds breathlessly to an oblivious yet racked calm. But, Chris argues, cinema is too escapist and flatly fictional for Cendrars: what he wants to achieve with this piece is a complex dance of different realities, different fictions, the presence and immediacy of live physical performance layered with the out-of-time otherworldliness of Cendrars' imagery, layered too with the audience's own perceptions of those fictions and realities.

The actors' task becomes two-fold: to navigate the layers themselves, and guide the audience through them. And this was the part of the process that most fascinated me: how the actors would transform Cendrars' teeming, fervid text into action. Chris was very specific about where this might happen: tacked to a wall in the rehearsal room was a long strip of brown paper, with each minute of the show marked on it, blocked into sections devoted to each text, and sections that would and wouldn't be populated by performers. The opening passage, from The Eubage, would play with light and sound; the next, from The End of the World, would open with the person of God but then focus on imagery. In the middle would be an edited reading of The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, with Gemma as the young Cendrars and Jamie as little Jeanne, spiralling through time, war, nostalgia and love. Following that, Mervyn's global destruction (dubbed the noon cadenza), and another scene with God melting into an embodiment of the horoscope, before a final sweep of light to close.

Day two of rehearsals was spent plucking phrases from The End of the World and The Eubage to use as jumping-off points: from the beginning, Chris's intention was to avoid flights of fantasy, to achieve specificity in performance by rooting all activity in the text. Arriving on day four, I looked over the postcards on which the quartet had written their choices and was struck by the level of duplication: working individually, they had instinctively been drawn to the same bits of text. “God the father has set himself up on Mars, the barnum of religions”; “He sends a coded message to the angel of Notre Dame”; “The disk of the sun grows a notch larger and its light weakens”; “Spectacle of war unleashed”; “An obscure eye closes on all that has been”.

Watching Clive, Gemma and Jamie devise snippety scenes from these fragments of text was extraordinary. The process is thrillingly mysterious to me: they would sit quietly, and the air around them would thrum with thought and possibility, and it would be impossible to know what might happen when they started to move. The afternoon on which they joined forces to give shape and character to God, I marvelled as ideas fired silently between them, igniting each other's imaginations. Sometimes, this mystery of making felt impenetrably opaque to me. On another afternoon, Jamie and Gemma, working from The Eubage, decided to sit either side of another sewing machine table, taking competitive bites from an apple that they passed to each other by means of a simple string pulley. I have raked and raked The Eubage, trying to figure out what provoked this action, and remain utterly perplexed. But it was so immediately, brilliantly evocative, even I knew that it had to go on stage.

The more of a feel I gained for what would and wouldn't be used in the final performance, the more discomforted I felt by my presence in the room. There is something so vulnerable about people experimenting with ideas: as the outsider, I didn't want to seem a prying, judgmental eye. More discombobulating still was the gradual realisation that Chris himself was vulnerable and searching and uncertain of what he was creating; the tension of this was unbearable to me. It broke, as a storm breaks, bringing brightness and a wash of clarity, one afternoon when he confessed to the room that all the tools he had once used as a director seemed neither useful nor desirable here. Instead he wanted to embrace the “creeping organicness” of the actors' work: appropriately enough, given the organic fervour of Cendrars' writing.

Chris's admission was a useful reminder that self-consciousness has little value in a rehearsal room. What he wants is a room in which people feel easy enough to, for instance, have a little nap if they need to, as Gemma did, to Chris's immense delight, one afternoon while the rest of us watched an episode of Buck Rogers. There was a lovely, unembarrassed calm in that nap of hers, a calm I didn't feel myself until I spent a giggly, breathless morning with Gemma, Jamie and Clive messing around with the charleston (Gemma is terribly good at it), for a dance sequence in the Trans-Siberian section. On the last day I sat with Jamie, helping him to stuff broccoli florets into a pink balloon (I can't even begin to explain that one), and talking about the difference my being there might or might not have made: he gently reminded me that theatre-makers are almost permanently being criticised, which makes the rehearsal room something of a haven. Gratifyingly, all felt I'd respected that.

By the day of the performance, I felt I had finally been absorbed by the group, which raised a question for me: how might that complicity affect the way in which I watched the piece? As the solo audience of the multiple runs-through, I couldn't tell. The almost-finished show felt incredible to me, utterly brilliant and beyond comprehension, abstract and unnaturalistic, spinning theatre on its axis into a strange new world. But I also felt privileged with knowledge and understanding: of the text beneath the images, of the arc of the show. I particularly enjoyed watching Chris: I hadn't yet seen him in his role as sound designer and he, too, was like a child, scampishly playing not just with a laptop crammed with effects and music but an array of toys and gadgets that cluttered his desk, from a mechanical bird in a cage to a Snoopy siren, clockwork teeth and a squeaky chipmunk. The richness of this piece – the plethora of sounds; Mervyn's swirl of images; all the odd props magicked up the designer, James Lewis (including a bit of a Rolls Royce's engine that he just happened to have stashed away at home); the multiple roles of the actors – was overwhelming.

I had to leave during the afternoon's dress rehearsal; entering the theatre three hours later with the rest of the audience I was struck by the peculiar feeling that I was no longer part of the group making the show. I was part of a new group now: the audience. What astonished me, watching the show in this new context, was how susceptible I was to that new group's responses. It was as though I, like everyone else, was watching the piece in a state of innocence. I shared their amusement, their wonder, their bewilderment: all that privileged knowledge melted away and I felt as unanchored as everyone else. I've never before felt so strenuously challenged to assess what it means to sit in an auditorium, how much I have to invest in a piece of theatre not only to appreciate it myself but to help others appreciate it.

What the Cendrars piece raised above all – and this issue dominated the company's post-show discussion the following morning – is a question about the extent to which audiences expect to “understand” a piece of theatre. I've spent some of the time since the Cendrars' show listening to Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, an album that passed me by on its release and whose popularity was initially incomprehensible to me. (I had a breakthrough on the day I played it on the decent stereo when alone in the house: turns out you can appreciate music much more when kids aren't in the room and when you're not in a car. Who knew?) That incomprehension had nothing to do with not understanding the songs on Veckatimest and everything to do with not feeling moved by them, not finding them beautiful. Music is something I experience emotionally and sensually: that isn't to say that it can't also be intellectually satisfying, but the demand I place on it is different.

Chris's Cendrars piece invites us to experience theatre emotionally and sensually, too: to accept that we might not understand what we're watching at any given moment, but that there is a rigorous thinking behind it and, having made that intellectual peace, allow ourselves to revel in the beauty of what we see. Not just that: allow ourselves to be swept along by it, absorbed by it, to feel as much within as without this disorienting yet magical world. I had joined Chris's world in the rehearsal room but once within the audience I felt I could join it only as far as those around me did.

This was just a 25-minute show – as Chris put it, an EP taster for the album to (it's hoped) come – and what emerged from the performance was that many in the audience wanted more anchoring, more information to guide them. What might this involve? Perhaps making the character of Cendrars clearer, or clarifying the relationships between the sound, image, light and performance desks. Perhaps a shift in the use of text: although the piece is packed with text, in this incarnation it was all recorded, and perhaps live spoken dialogue would allow the audience to feel more connected with the piece.

But perhaps audiences need to work on themselves a little, too. They need to arrive knowing that it's OK not to understand this piece of theatre in conventional terms, that it's OK simply to enjoy the spaces that open up between what they see and hear and think. Cendrars plunges us into the deepest mysteries of the world: to present that mystery with too much clarity might well defeat the point.

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