A Disappearing Number & The Age I’m In; observation on the middlebrow

1. There is nothing more dispiriting than coming out of a performance feeling exhausted, disappointed and sad, only to have to face the clamour of a delighted audience. People giving multiple rounds of applause, praising the same production for being moving, lovely or touching. For making them smile. I recently saw two, back to back.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure. Carriageworks, Sydney 2008.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure, at Carriageworks (still going), is an example of physical theatre that would not leave a hole in the world if it disappeared overnight. It is, in one word, unnecessary. It is, just like it could not be. Soundtracked with audio recordings of interviews with Australians of different age groups, it makes a diverse group of performers dance and lip-synch the responses about the joys and difficulties of life. It is a most unfortunate combination of verbatim, pedagogical, feel-good and accessible. It is dance drawn with crayons, Saturday night date theatre, and social commentary ranging from bold (7-year-olds saying cute things) to extremely provocative (vague mythologisation of the struggle against breast cancer). It doesn’t have the power of a documentary on more concrete struggles, nor the centreless, open-ended poignancy of the 7 Up series. It has also been described, over at Stage Noise, as mesmerising, clever, innovative, imaginative, witty and moving.

On the other hand, Theatre du ComplicitĂ© is filling the Sydney Opera House with A Disappearing Number, according to Diana Simmonds an amazing, exhilarating experience, making one feel happy, touched, humble and smarter (if I quote Simmonds again, it has more to do with the ready availability of her in-depth, articulate reviews online than to signpost a personal dislike; I respect Simmonds’s opinion). The grand ordinariness of this production is a little harder to explain, due to its sheer foreignness to Australia. It is overwhelmingly expensive, produced, all glitz and media. However, underneath the seemingly complex narrative lines and moving screens, it is a very straight-lined story of an unhappy love, peppered with a biographical sub-plot of the maladjusted-genius genre. It has a grieving husband, some Hollywood-like, profound-sounding blabber on mathematics, pretty images and music, and the end is clearly visible quarter-way into the performance. Every element is presented in its most polished, most palatable, least surprising version: the American is a capitalist simpleton, every mathematician is out of touch with reality, every university a temple of intellectual pursuit. There is even a most calculatingly middle-of-the-road touch of post-colonial nous, discreetly pointing out that not every Indian-looking, these days, was born in India.

A Disappearing Number, Complicite. Sydney Opera House 2008.

What frustrates the most, however, is that A Disappearing Number, formally speaking, looks a bit better than The Age I’m In: good enough to confuse us into thinking it is more courageous than The History Boys, another prime example of middlebrow art as consolation. It is easier to recognise the crayon dancing in the latter as the Australian mediocre than is it to place the moving screens and layered projections of the former in its context within the formal bell curve of European theatre. A Disappearing Number, put simply, is well-informed mainstream. It is a mainstage production coming out of a place with healthy independent theatre. It collects a number of formal ideas that were ground-breaking about 10 years ago, and incorporates them with no other purpose but to showcase what has become acceptable to the middle taste in Britain. This is a good, healthy dynamics, mainstream pinching innovation, innovation becoming mainstreamed, but it makes the screens, the lights, the physical movement in A Disappearing Number no more than an educated decoration on a very proper, conservative body. It clearly does not develop organically out of the problems within the play, just like the simple maths employed does not organically jell to the story (and is not even correct: 1/2 plus 1/3 is not 2/3, etc). It relates to formal inquiry the way a faux-hawk relates to punk.

A Disappearing Number. Sydney, 2008.

What this sort of art does is coat deep ordinary mediocrity with a shroud of golden, shining glory. It reassures us that it is all very meaningful: not because profundity can be uncovered in the meaningless detail, not even because order can be discerned out of life chaos, but because we can play Beethoven over the most banal events, feelings and thoughts. The illusion of artistic depth, in both cases, is just a cloud of mystifying nonsense: mathematics and multimedia for A Disappearing Number, dance and (simpler and less expensive but still) multimedia in The Age I’m In.

2. It would require more than a short essay to question the politics of these two productions, the implications of the glorification of the great genius, of the common person, of the academia. It would require a book to argue why presenting the world without a single uncomfortable question mark narrows our worldview. Both of these two works of theatre give us exactly the same answers to unanswerable questions as the sum of our world, as it is now, does. Which amounts to no answer at all: instead, an attempt at comforting us that everything is just right. Perfect. The best of possible worlds.

It is worth remembering Kundera, who diagnoses precisely the problem in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If he calls it kitsch, and not middlebrow, the difference is in cultural temperament, I dare suggest, inessential. Middlebrow, often understood as a pursuit of simple artiness, to make us look good, is certainly sliding, nowadays if not always, into a pursuit of feelgood, of touchedness. On the level of aesthetic experience, says Kundera, Middlebrow causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes middlebrow middlebrow.” The first tear is in empathy, the second in our self-gratulatory recognition of empathy.

Middlebrow, he continues, is the absolute denial of shit. Middlebrow is that vision of the world in which nothing unwholesome or indecent is allowed to come into view. It’s the aesthetics of wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Middlebrow excludes shit in order to paint a picture of perfection, a world of purity and moral decency. Middlebrow is Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, blond children skiing down the Bavarian Alps.

Middlebrow is also, more tellingly, a categorical agreement with being. Nothing can be private, unpleasant, complex or idiosyncratic. The problem, argues Kundera, is that the world of middlebrow is the world purified of everything troubling, ugly and unwholesome. It is a picture of the world at once illogical, emotional, aggressive and demagogical in its simplicity. Everything purged outside the frame of this picture grows into monsters and returns to haunt. The logical conclusion of the Nazi kitsch is the ghetto and the concentration camp, just like the natural extension of middlebrow theatre is Sarah Kane.

3. What else to say? I have labelled shows that make other people smile as toxic, dangerous and Nazi, and if there ever was a place for me among the normal theatre audience, I’ve shut that door behind me now. I wish there was redemption past this point, a sense that I could do something more meaningful than say, be suspicious of feelgood. Be suspicious of mathematical geniuses, the wonders of academia, and history boys. There is an entire army, in Australia, that would love to see this sort of middlebrow installed as the mainstream, replacing not only brave theatre but television schlock as well. It is a lonely, unhappy place for me to be in. I don’t know.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure and Carriageworks. Choreography Kate Champion. Set / Lighting Designer Geoff Cobham. Costume Designer Bruce McKnvin. Sound Designer Mark Blackwell. Visual Artist William Yang. Audio Visual Producer Tony Melov. Audio Visual Technician Neil Jensen. Performers: Marlo Benjamin, Samuel Brent, Annie Byron, Tilda Cobham Hervey, Vincent Crowley, Daniel Daw, Brian Harrison, Roz Hervey, Kirstie McCracken, Veronica Neave, Tim Ohl. Carriageworks, Sydney, 26 November – 6 December.

A Disappearing Number, co-production by Complicite, barbicanbite07, Ruhrfestspiele, Wiener Festwochen, Holland Festival, in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth. Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney. Music Nitin Sawnhey. Design Michael Levine. Lighting Paul Anderson. Sound Christopher Shutt. Projection by Sven Ortel. Costume Christina Cunningham. Performers: David Annen, Firdous Bamji, Paul Bhattacharjee, Hiren Chate, Divya Kasturi, Chetna Pandya, Saskia Reeves and Shane Shambhu. Sydney Theatre, Sydney, November 19 – December 2.

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