Seeing a progression in someone’s work the wrong way around is always intriguing for the possibilities it offers for misreading, or overly simplifying. Having seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt before Life is a Dream (a remount of which has just closed at The Store Room – but bear with my lateness, for I am working hard), it is easy to see a history, kernels yet to be developed. Foucault warns against this, asking to do a genealogy instead. Well.
Life is a Dream premiered in late 2008, and appears to set up the framework for the complex theatrical text (as in weaving, textile) that Peer Gynt, in early 2009, became. It inserts Calderón de la Barca’s baroque dramatic text into a layering of fantasies. It removes all but scraps of text, which appear not as the truth of the performance, but its final point of unreality – a relatively consensual game played by children trapped in a room. It settles on a relaxed, thinly performative mode. The reality of the stage is paramount, tactile, driving all else: the whole performance timed to a whistling kettle. The performers are sometimes characters, sometimes calling each other by their name. It is playful, smart theatre.
Back in 2008, the premise would have been clearly recognised as a reference to Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who, it had just been discovered, had sexually abused his daughter for 24 years, keeping her locked up in his basement, together with the three children born out of the affair. The children have since become subjects of psychiatric study, as they grew up in total isolation from social reality – the eldest was 19 when they were released. These are the children of Life is a Dream: a posse of completely unsocialised human beings, their mother gone, making up their world as they go along. The dynamic between them is subtly realised, and often mesmerising to watch: we realise that some children are barely able to speak, but some have a patchy sense of the world, and they use this epistemological high ground to dominate the others. At most times, however, theirs is a mini-society set up according to a completely nonsensical premise: the mother is dead, the father was never there, there is someone to blame, and someone to punish.
Schlusser uses the kettle (constantly boiling water) as a theatrical clepsydra. Between endlessly recurring cups of tea, we get a sense of the terrible, maddening boredom of the basement, the despair and the physical frustration of confinement, and the physical and psychic aggression that builds up and can only be relieved through ever more inventive games. In one, Sophie Mathisen directs and choreographs the story of the Sleeping Beauty on herself and children. In another, Calderón’s play is played.
The layering of dream and reality in Life is a Dream is perversely disfigured: Segismundo, a confined prince, is released into the Polish court. Waking up in society for the first time, he kills and rapes and is drugged and returned to his tower, and told the previous day was just a vivid dream. However, a revolting gang frees him and he wins the throne, sparing the father who had imprisoned him, marrying off secondary characters; still unsure of whether this part is dream or reality, but convinced that even in dreams we have to behave honourably. Yet, in Schlusser’s basement, Segismundo may have been imprisoned in the corner toilet his whole life, or only for the duration of one game. He may be liberated for good, or just until another game starts. We don’t know. What we do understand, as the kettle boils again, is that there will be a lot more time to waste.
At the end of 2009, the Fritzl case withdraws as the first interpretive prism, and the filthy room could now be a sealed and forgotten nuclear shelter, an aftermath of war, or submerged under the melted glaciers. The tragedy is no less clear, but its meaning is more generalised.
One of the things that have always intrigued me about Life is a Dream has been the questionable relationship between what we see and what we know, or a certain doubt in the reality of reality, that Baroque shared with our age (or certainly the post-modernity pre-9/11). There is not only the similarity of stories to judge from: the skepticism of both Life is a Dream and, say, Matrix. It’s also the delight in surfaces, in excessive decoration, in motion as opposed to stillness. * What seems to connect the periods is the general acceptance of affectation and mannerism as self-evidently and widely appreciated. (Now, we could generalise further, we have entered a period more akin to rococo. Subtler, gentler, but equally, if not more, mannerist. Wes Anderson, in this interpretation, would be the Watteau of our age.) The comparison also looms over as a threat of future insignificance, incomprehensibility, the overly stylised baroque literary style is near-impossible to read today, in almost any European language. What’s more, few care. Bound-up in looking up its own arse, comparatively little of the period has survived in literature as important for the canon.
While Life is a Dream is as baroque as 2008 gets, it is a comparatively clean, tidy and elegant production, and I have to say I preferred the bewilderingly complex Peer Gynt. Perhaps it comes with familiarity with method: the layering of realities, the sense of anti-performative, real time and space that anchored the stage overburdened with worlds, the accumulation of detail, the snippety use of text. Life is a Dream is tied together with a good knot, but it is far less exciting once we can read what is inside, or even predict what will come next. And some things are not as well executed: the use of music (a moment of Nick Cave, and the threatening bass of Massive Attack’s Angel that closes the show) is strangely dysfunctional, neither integrated with the subtlety of the total, nor incongruent enough to be ironic. (Compare with a burst of soap bubbles at the end of Peer Gynt, a brilliantly off-handed gesture to manic stupidity.) There is a resolute rhythm, and a purposeful meaningfulness to much of the dialogue that lets the production lean slightly too much towards a sit-com: a sort of feigned casualness that is shredded away in Peer Gynt. But this is what I mean by ‘tidy’ and ‘clean’.
Finally, there is a thin film of melodrama in the conceit: the basement, the tragedy, the poignancy of it all. The loveliest improvement of Peer Gynt on the formal skelleton of Life is a Dream is the exquisite lightness it brings to very much the same philosophical inquiry, same existential despair. It manages to create the same desolation, the same absurdity and grief, by making a puzzle out of the most banal, most inconsequential elements: a wedding rehearsal, a game of Fußball, plastic chairs, soap bubbles. It doesn’t signpost its intentions with trip-hop. It smiles as wide as nothingness.
I wonder what comes next.
*For a long time, I very firmly associated Calderon’s play to the general weirdness of Shoujo Kakumei Utena:
Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room, November 18-29.