Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real Performances: National Arts Festival

Yann Marussich in Bain Brise pic by Suzy Bernstein
It will take Yann Marussich over an hour to step out of the bath. It's the shards of glass he is buried beneath that prevent this usually swift action, turning the relaxing experience of being in a bath into a risky one. Common gestures are prolonged and, more importantly, now have consequences. Bain Brise, a performance art piece on the main programme of the National Arts Festival (NAF), presents a visually and sensually compelling scene.

The glass crackles and ripples as the Swiss performance artist adjusts his naked body beneath its weight. With only one free arm, he manages to uncover his head and torso, tossing the glass on to the floor. It shatters on impact, scattering the debris at our feet. Watching this is risky too. We step back, move to a standing position.

It is in the quiet moments when Marussich is inert and takes a break from this self-imposed struggle that are the most poignant. It is only during these intervals that we grasp the real physical weight of this performance. We are witnessing a real situation, not a contrived one - though it is set up. This creates a kind of intimacy. It is one that extends beyond observing someone naked, bathing, or the fact that we are informally gathered around him - there is no stage or seating. We share in his struggle because we are as bound, immured to it, as he is. And the line between us and him is suspended, blurred.

Unfortunately, when Marussich eventually frees himself of the glass and prepares to step out of the clawfoot bath, he reinstates the barrier separating us; glaring at us, as if questioning, rejecting, challenging our imposing, hungry gazes. It's as if the scene was of our design and not his.

In the makeshift theatres in school halls and classrooms that pop up during the NAF in Grahamstown, the barrier dividing the stage and the seats seems slightly less defined. The stages aren't elevated, they are located on floors, covered in black materials. As a result the line between the stage and the floor is typically indiscernible. Sparsely placed lights and props demarcate it as performance space. Yet the actors seem keenly aware of this invisible boundary, though they crave, seek out ways of transgressing it. The transgression occurs when their fictions appear real. It is not only for our benefit but for their own; their acumen is measured against their ability to become lost in their own fictions.

Given this drive to turn fiction into reality, perhaps it is not unexpected that the only obvious theme uniting many of theatre productions at the festival centred on the fictions imposed on people or the fictions they adopt in an effort to make sense of their world or to retreat from it. Certainly, many plays presented characters existing in isolation and the fictions they construct to feed their alienation.
In The Last Moustache Heiner Schmidt (played by Tim Plewman) is trapped in a secret bunker below one of Hitler's safehouses. This hovel serves as his dressing-room; he's an actor charged by the Nazi top brass to play Hitler, who has been killed - "confettied", he wryly observes. It is the role of a lifetime; the man he is playing is an artful performer. The quality of his performances has consequences in reality; he can sustain or end the war.