Monday, 19 May 2014

John Bourassa responding to Domestic Labour, A Study in Love by 30 Bird

Let's be honest: I generally don't even read theatre reviews, much less write them.
I joined this group because I want to help create and support new work and new audiences and to find ways to understand what makes them both tick.
But I do love theatre, or more accurately I’ve fallen in love with enough individual theatre works — or even just fleeting moments in performances — to sustain a belief that the medium is not entirely hopeless.
Theatre can be the most direct, personal, courageous, thoughtful, alive and complete way of communicating - at least in public.
To preserve that directness, I avoid reviews before a performance. I see work because I trust the company, director, venue, author, designer or performer (roughly in that order) or because I just need to take a risk. Also I'll see anything Dutch or Belgian...don't ask.
So this is not really a review. I won't be rehashing things much or writing for some imaginary reader who hasn't seen the show.
Instead I’d like to open a discussion about context, because for me Domestic Labour was more a study of context than of love.
Unfamiliar with 30 Bird's work, I came to Domestic Labour with precious little context to work from. The show would have to provide it for me.
Its opening tableau's simple staging, static performers and faux-Philip-Glass soundtrack, immediately placed it in the tradition of festival-based, movement-oriented, mainly visual performance art: competent, professional, with few surprises. Though the hoovers did intrigue me.
The ensuing text had flashes of poetry, effective rhythms, a certain playful muscularity. Studiously scattered, it forswore character, individualised voice, often even gender as far as I could tell. Not much context there, other than a pretty close adherence to the post-millennial fashion for abstraction and snippets of storytelling that never quite cohere.
The text worked as sound in much the same way as the staging worked as visuals: both sought to show, not to explain or contextualise.
It doesn't always work:  The use of the "Johnny Guitar" clips seems largely incidental: though the clash of its stagey feminist sensibilities and the macho context of fifties westerns is apposite,  the choice of Joan Crawford is a bit too Wooster Group/hipster for my taste.
But on the whole the effects work as intended: they are fleeting, evocative, cumulative. The everyday familiarity of the work's focus - house cleaning - certainly helps make the whole seem direct and unpretentious, even reassuring. The performances and staging - the interactions between woman and machine - are sometimes funny, surprising, genuinely fluid and appealing even in their occasional awkwardness. I was never bored and found the whole, umm, …sort of seductive. I did keep wishing one of the hoovers would suddenly explode in a cloud of dust - the way violence can suddenly explode on to domestic life in much of the world; the pop of the inner tube fell flat for me.
That said, the text's forays into expatriate life, Iranian history and feminism seemed almost peripheral in their steadfast refusal to cohere. Unlike some of you, I see this as more of a conscious choice than a failing, an attempt to avoid the pitfalls not just of narrative but of context itself. Theatre is at least a decade into a post-dramatic struggle against narrative, but this show seeks to go a little further into both abstraction and, paradoxically, concreteness. Abstract because both its form and content lack clear definition, concrete because we are given a succession of very specific textual, physical, and mechanical coups de theatre. What we aren't given is a way to think about all this: consistent characters, voices, timelines, histories, places, story, even ideas. We aren't given contexts. Context can be misleading, it can confine how and what we think, feel and see. It often blinds us to life as it is lived and experienced. It asks us to imagine through art instead of experiencing it, to think we understand a bit more of, say, "life in Iran" instead of just listening to its individual voices, juxtapositions, questions, lives, vacuums.
That said, I might have found its voices more direct and compelling if they seemed a bit more contemporary.
Maybe it's because I come from Quebec, which has in recent decades become one of the most feminist societies in the world. Complaining that men don't do housework strikes me as very 1954. Which reminds me, I have some hoovering to do.

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